Fox // 1971 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 2nd, 2009
There are no rules and no holds barred when Popeye cuts loose!
Producer Phil D'Antoni pitched his idea of a film adaptation of Robin Moore's non-fiction book The French Connection to every major studio in Hollywood. It's a little shocking that none of the studios were immediately interested considering D'Antoni's previous movie, the police actioner Bullitt, was a major success and Moore's book was about Brooklyn cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso's investigation of an international drug trafficking scheme. D'Antoni eventually landed a modest deal with 20th Century Fox. Working with a low budget, he brought in a young documentary filmmaker named William Friedkin to direct the film, and hired middle-aged second bananas Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider to star. The end result was a picture so rough, raw, and shocking to audiences in 1971 that it won Oscars for Friedkin, D'Antoni, and Hackman, kicked off Hackman's career as a leading man, radically reinvented the police film genre, and continues to maintain its place as one of the most gripping and memorable movies of the creatively fertile New Hollywood era.
The French Connection made its debut on DVD back in 2001 as part of Fox's now defunct Five Star Collection line of two-disc releases. The remastered transfer was easily the best the movie had ever looked in a home video format, and the feature was supplemented by two hour-long documentaries, a handful of deleted scenes, and two audio commentaries. Now, The French Connection goes HD with this two-disc Blu-ray release, and receives an upgraded transfer and a wealth of new extras.
An evening out at a nightclub leads Brooklyn narcotics detectives Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman, Unforgiven) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider, Jaws) into a stakeout of Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco, The Honeymoon Killers), an unknown they see entertaining a group of mobsters. The duo's investigation of Boca leads to Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), a Frenchman they suspect of smuggling huge quantities of heroin into New York. Doyle is determined to smash the drug trafficking operation and arrest Charnier, but his obsession with the case riles his boss (Eddie Egan, Badge 373) and prompts Charnier to send an assassin (Marcel Bozzuffi, Rififi in Paris) to kill him.
The French Connection remains fascinating as a mix of high art and populist sensibilities. While the movie is famous for its gritty, low-tech visual design, Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman (Wyatt Earp) didn't employ that style out of blind necessity but with the intent of producing a particular psychological response in their audience. The movie's coarse grain and shaky handheld action sequences reflect the soul of its hero, "Popeye" Doyle -- rough, no-nonsense, more than a little ugly, and fearlessly obsessed. More than anything else, The French Connection is a movie about obsession. In traditional cop movies, the hero is driven by a (sometimes naïve) desire for justice. Doyle harbors no illusions that he's saving his city. He isn't an idealist, morally outraged by the proliferation of narcotics on New York's streets. On the other hand, he isn't a dirty cop, either. He's something not seen in cop movies prior to Friedkin's: an amoral, tough, tenacious professional determined to chase down his opponent primarily for the satisfaction of the chase itself -- and because chasing criminals is what cops do. Watching The French Connection, you get the sense that you're seeing the truth of detective life, not a glossy Hollywood invention. Real-life cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso were consultants on the picture and approved of the way they were portrayed, warts and all.
To the extent that The French Connection is a closely studied character piece, it is a character piece with all of the trappings of the action-crime genre. D'Antoni's previous production, Bullitt, was famed for a wild car chase through the streets of San Francisco. The French Connection one-ups that flick with a sequence featuring Doyle requisitioning a car from a poor dope driving innocently through New York, only to hurtle below the tracks of an elevated train in an attempt to capture his fleeing assassin. The scene is shot close to the bone (often from inside the car) as Doyle blows through red lights, careens into oncoming traffic, and smashes into another driver (we learn from a Disc Two featurette that that moment was no stunt; one of the Brooklyn neighborhood's residents accidentally pulled out in front of Hackman during the shoot and got his car wrecked in the process). In addition to the car chase, the movie also features a couple of crowd-pleasing foot chases and a large-scale climactic shootout in and around an abandoned crematorium. In less kinetic sequences, we watch Doyle and Russo casing a nightclub, tailing (and sometimes losing) criminals through the city's streets, and pursuing authorization for wiretaps. It is standard stuff for police procedurals, but Friedkin elevates the conventions by making them examples of Doyle's obsessive personality. Russo dreads Doyle's idea of a spur-of-the-moment all-night stakeout, a suggestion Popeye makes without second thought because there doesn't appear to be a line between his personal and professional lives. A nightclub is a place to pick up a cocktail waitress or make a collar -- either way, he's happy. The action sequences are similarly grounded in character. Besides Popeye Doyle, the only cops who requisition citizens' automobiles are cops in bad movies. We believe that Doyle would do it because he's Ahab and Charnier is his white whale.
The transfer of Doyle's adventures on this Blu-ray is likely to make a high definition aficionado who is offended by anything less than a perfectly smooth and precisely detailed image feel as though The French Connection chased him out of his favorite neighborhood bar, threw him against a wall, stuck a dirty finger in his face, and asked him if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie. By any objective standard, The French Connection looks pretty mediocre, but objective standards can't always account for good taste. Friedkin and Roizman's documentary visual style meant shooting most of the gritty exterior sequences with small cameras, at high speed, and in natural light. That allowed for nimble camerawork but resulted in coarse grain. Sequences that were more traditionally blocked and shot in controlled environments are more traditionally attractive. The variations in shooting conditions are particularly noticeable at the outset of the film, as we cut between the chaotic work of our two heroes and the playful lifestyle of the Frenchman who will be their quarry. Doyle and Russo's takedown of a neighborhood dope dealer is grungy and harsh, while Charnier's seaside conversation with his young lover is smooth and beautiful. These variations in quality are part of The French Connection's heart and soul. It would be a lesser movie without them.
Twentieth Century Fox has gone all out with this Blu-ray edition of The French Connection. Rather than porting over the transfer from the 2001 DVD (it was a great-looking image, but may not have been mastered in HD), they've ponied up for a completely new master, supervised by Friedkin. The renovation includes a new approach to color timing, one that Friedkin borrowed from John Huston's 1956 production of Moby Dick. In that film, Huston combined three-strip Technicolor with a black-and-white negative in order to create a more subdued color palette. Working in the digital realm, Friedkin began with a black-and-white version of The French Connection and infused it with color. The result is a look that is slightly more desaturated than the 2001 DVD. The image is cooler and smoother, yet still appropriately rough around the edges. Most significant, the transfer looks a heck of a lot more like celluloid than its DVD counterpart's because of improved depth, slightly improved detail, and an absence of digital artifacts (haters of digital noise reduction will like what they see). The quality of this Blu-ray presentation towers above any previous home video incarnation and, according to Friedkin, it's better than the original theatrical prints, too.
There is a variety of audio options that will please audiophiles and purists alike. The default option is a DTS 5.1 lossless master audio expansion of the movie's original analog mono track. It's a surprisingly good track given the obvious limitations of the source. Clean dialogue rides squarely in the center speaker, while the rear speakers get plenty of play during the movie's action sequences. Dynamic range is limited and LFE is essentially non-existent, but the track is as clean as a whistle and well designed. A Dolby stereo surround option provides a less impressive expansion of the original source, but is still solid. Those who prefer to kick it old school can opt for a fully restored two-channel presentation of the movie's original mono track. There are also Dolby 5.1 dubs in Spanish and French, as well as English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese subtitle tracks.
When it comes to extras, Fox does The French Connection on Blu-ray right by throwing in everything from their 2001 Five Star Collection DVD release along with a variety of new HD supplements. Disc One of the set augments the feature with a new one-minute video introduction by Friedkin, presented in 1080p at 1.78:1. The two commentary tracks from the DVD release are also preserved. The first track, by Friedkin, is detailed and informative. The second, by Hackman and Scheider, is less interesting, particularly since the actors weren't recorded together. A brand new trivia track offers loads of non-scene-specific anecdotes about the movie, the cast and crew, and the real French Connection case. Among the audio options is a track that isolates Don Ellis's edgy and excellent score for the film.
Disc Two kicks off with seven deleted scenes that include an introduction and optional commentary by Friedkin (these are the same cut scenes included on the two-disc DVD, though the presentation has been treated to an HD upgrade). The reel is sourced from a down-converted 16mm affair that Friedkin originally produced as a tool for teaching film students about making editorial choices. Each of the scenes are fascinating and well acted, but would have slowed the picture's narrative momentum. The reel runs 11 minutes and 37 seconds in length.
Seven new featurette are all presented in crisp 1080p 1.78:1 transfers with Dolby stereo audio. In "Anatomy of a Chase" (20:20) Friedkin and producer Philip D'Antoni return to the Brooklyn location for The French Connection's famed car chase. "Hackman on Doyle" (10:49) is a sit-down interview in which Gene Hackman ruminates on his character, the film's production, working with Roy Scheider, and how he didn't get along with Eddie Egan. Friedkin pays a visit to retired detective Sonny Grosso in "Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection" (19:12). The former cop recalls the details of the early '60s French Connection case that inspired the movie. While the events of the movie are slimmed down and more linear than the reality, it's clear that Friedkin and his crew were obsessed with getting the esoteric elements of police work right -- hunches, nighttime stake-outs, and unglamorous footwork. "Scene of the Crime" (5:14) finds Friedkin reminiscing with former homicide and narcotics police officer Randy Jurgensen about the use of the Brooklyn Bridge for a key sequence in the movie. Jurgensen was instrumental in closing the bridge for the filming of the scene. He was also the subject of Friedkin's 1980 movie Cruising. In "Color Timing The French Connection" (13:15), Friedkin walks us through the remastering of the movie for Blu-ray release. Film music historian Jon Burlingame discusses the movie's memorably dissonant score and the career of its composer in "Cop Jazz: The Music of Don Ellis" (10:04). Film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini offer up their thoughts about The French Connection's seminal role in neo-noir filmmaking in "Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection" (13:47).
In addition to the brand new featurettes, the disc contains both documentaries from the Five Star Collection DVD. BBC Documentary: The Poughkeepsie Shuffle (53:38) follows parallel lines as it examines the production of Friedkin's film and its central role in the New Hollywood movement, as well as the police case upon which its story is based. Friedkin, Hackman, Scheider, Roizman, Grosso, Jurgensen, and others are interviewed for the piece. Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of The French Connection (56:33) is a Fox Movie Channel documentary that follows Sonny Grosso's career as a cop, consultant on Friedkin's film, and ultimately a movie and television producer. Both documentaries are presented in standard definition.
The French Connection is a perfect marriage of a bleak, almost depressing, character study with rousing, edge-of-your-seat action. It's also one of the best American movies of the 1970s.
Fox's 2001 Five Start Collection DVD release offered an impressive transfer and some decent extras, but still felt slim based on the movie's stature. This Blu-ray rights all wrongs. The transfer is a stark improvement over its SD counterpart, and the supplements are comprehensive. Fans of The French Connection shouldn't hesitate to dump their old DVDs on eBay and upgrade to Blu.
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director Introduction
* Deleted Scenes
* Trivia Track
* Isolated Score
* D-Box Motion Control