The French Connection is a clear masterpiece from Friedkin in 1971. It won best picture, director, actor (hackman), writing and editing but is still, somehow, underrated at #571 all-time on TSPDT. It’s 300 slots better than that at a minimum. It’s detailed, authentic, filled with brilliant examples of film form at its finest and some virtuoso stylistic high-water marks as well.
I’ve seen the film several times over the years but it’s one of those cinematic gems that gets better with each viewing. I love the location shooting- look, feel and smell of 1971 New York City.
Friedkin deserves the most praise and he holds the film together through really brilliant film form. One strand of the form is editing juxtaposing the rich French drug dealer (fernando rey) with the gritty nyc blue collar cops. In several great editing sequences they show Rey eating escargot and picking from a wine list a warm, inviting upscale restaurant while showing Hackman and scheider freezing outside drinking stale pizza and bad coffee. The film is largely a cat and mouse game including these long sequences detailed in great length that might test the patience of some viewers. It’s part of the wonderful detail that Friedkin displays in several scenes here (taking the car apart at the end, testing the heroin step by step, the car chase). Friedkin even displays this in some of his other films, particularly in his other masterpiece, the exorcist (1973)—think back to the scenes of Regan from the exorcist where she’s getting tested at the hospital—or even the long opening prologue with max von sydow excavating- love it.
The greatest example of this level of formal detail and stylistic bravado is the famous car chase scene. It’s one of the best editing sequences in the history of film and it perfectly marries Friedkin’s formal and stylistic elements. The shot/reaction shot editing and hackman’s brilliant acting in these scenes really invokes the early work of the power of suggestion montage editing by Eisenstein and the other 1920’s Russian auteurs. Friedkin even plays homage to them, Eisenstein and Potemkin by including a baby stroller in this sequence- quite genius.
On top of everything else we have a very interesting narrative and, most probably, career-best work from Gene Hackman who is an absolute powder keg as Popeye; such a complex character.
Critics today may decry the light screenplay (even I’m a little surprised this won the screenplay Oscar (it’s sparse- it’s largely long quiet moments and then shouting by Hackman)) and the token 1970’s cinema zoom shots but I honestly love every one of them and think they’re used quite well (often to invoke the rich man vs poor man contrast I write about above).
The only film from 1971 that is clearly better is Kubrick a clockwork orange. Friedkin’s film is a masterpiece.