Judge Jason Panella prefers his connections to be Belgian.
"Pay attention, we're gonna ask questions later!"
It's not hard to take a movie like The French Connection for granted. There have been plenty of crime thrillers in the four decades since which have upped the ante significantly. But this film was unheard of for the early '70s; a stark, almost documentarian crime drama with an amoral jackass of a protagonist. Made under financial constraints, the movie still managed to be a commercial and critical success, serving as a blueprint for a good many police films and TV procedurals that followed. Plus, it nabbed five Academy Awards and made director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) into a respected name.
The French Connection is based on the downfall of a real-life drug trafficking scheme that brought Turkish heroin into the US through France. Gene Hackman (The Conversation) stars at Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, a caustic and cynical Brooklyn narcotics cop who isn't above getting dirty to get the job done. With partner Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider, Jaws) in tow, Doyle obsessively follows local hood Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco, F.I.S.T.) up to the top of the drug smuggling food chain: French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).
The cast is uniformly great, especially since most of the supporting players were non-actors. It's no wonder the movie served as a springboard for Hackman's career. The same goes for Friedkin, whose direction still feels fresh, giving each scene a powerful sense of urgency. Like Popeye Doyle's obsession with closing his case, Friedkin similarly obsesses over capturing the nuts and bolts of detective work. We get to watch Popeye and Cloudy pound on snitches, lose patience during stakeouts, follow false leads, and argue with lots and lots of people. The French Connection also has one of the most beloved car chases in film history, and a remarkable sequence (my personal favorite) where Doyle tries to shadow Charnier through a crowded subway.
The big sell here, though, is the new 1080p/1.85:1 AVC-encoded transfer, supervised by both Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman. The previous Blu-ray got some bad press after Friedkin signed off on a transfer that featured more grain than the original DVD release. With Roizman on board this time, the result is (mostly) a success. The picture, especially the Brooklyn scenes, keep the cold and clammy touch that Friedkin wanted, but punch up the colors. You can really see the difference in the few scenes set in France, which look gorgeous. There's still some intentional grain, but The French Connection was never intended to feature sweeping cinematography. Some of the blacks are too murky, but overall everything is sharp and rich. The only major qualm I have is in the orange and teal tones which seem to smother all of the other colors. It's not Michael Bay orange and teal, thankfully, but there is a slight emphasis here that wasn't in previous releases. A bit distracting, but doesn't ruin the overall presentation.
The audio options are identical to the 2009 Blu-ray release. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track does a nice job of making everything clear and crisp, and the Dolby 2.0 Stereo and Mono mixes are also solid. There are some spots where composer Don Ellis' discordant score drowns everything out, but it's doesn't become too much of a problem.
As far as extras go, there's almost nothing here that wasn't already on the previous Blu-ray. In fact, this Fox Signature Series edition drops a few of the longer features from that two-disc set. Still, the stuff that's here is nothing to shake a stick at, especially if you haven't seen them. We get two commentary tracks, both good: one with Friedkin, the other with Hackman and Scheider. There's also a pretty informative Trivia Track, as well as Ellis' score in an isolated track. "Anatomy of a Chase" follows Friedkin and producer Philip D'Antoni around as they pal around and discuss the minutiae of the film's famous car chase. "Hackman on Doyle" has the actor talking about the various challenges of playing a fairly off-putting, bigoted character. "Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection" has the director chatting with "Cloudy" Grosso, the real detective that inspired Scheider's character. "Scene of the Crime" is a brief exploration of how the NYC police intentionally tied up traffic for certain scene. "Cop Jazz: The Music of Don Ellis" is a profile the jazz-man and the various techniques he used to give the movie it's then-revolutionary score. "Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection" does a nice job of making the thematic connection between The French Connection and film noir. "Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of the French Connection" is an hour-long documentary that really digs deep into the movie's backstory and lore. There are also a number of deleted scenes with optional commentary with Friedkin; most are good, but it makes sense why they were left out of the final product. All of the bonus material is worthwhile, especially the stuff featuring Friedkin, who is a talkative and amiable guy with a good sense of dramatic flair, while keeping discussion moving. The only new feature is a 28-page booklet with some glossy photos and sharp write-ups about the actors and the film.
The French Connection (Blu-ray) Signature Series isn't without flaws, but it is the best high-def treatment available for this legendary crime picture.
Not guilty, and Doyle knows it.
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