“Did you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?… Have you ever been to Poughkeepsie?… When you were in Poughkeepsie, you sat on the edge of the bed, didn’t you? You put your fingers between your toes and you picked your feet…. If I can’t bust you on this other thing I’m going to bust you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.”
There can be no argument on this point. The 1970’s was a golden age for the cinema. When you think about the iconic characters and films the decade produced, it’s hard to contradict the point. Films like The Exorcist, The Godfather (both parts), Jaws, Dirty Harry, Star Wars, Superman The Motion Picture, The Sting, Rocky, Deliverance, Apocalypse Now, Alien, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and yes, The French Connection. They redefined film genres. The slasher film was born in the 1970’s. Their influence is felt on nearly every film today, and inspired nearly every new filmmaker to come along in the years since. Yes, there were golden eras before then, but I’m not sure there’s been one since. Of course, there have been truly great movies since, but can you remember a decade with that kind of a run?
The film is based upon the book by Robin Moore. That book was based upon a real event. It was the largest drug bust in history at the time. That combined with the fact that the lead detective in the case, Jimmy “Popeye” Egan was quite a flamboyant character, made this a perfect story for a book and eventual film. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider were both relative unknowns at the time. For Hackman, this was unquestionably his breakout performance, earning him an Oscar for the role and a spot on the Hollywood A list for the next nearly 40 years. For Scheider, this was a near breakout role, but just a couple of years later he would enjoy that A spot with his iconic role as Brody in Jaws. It was intentional to have unknowns in the part in order to allow these actors to truly inhabit these characters and to give it more of that “true to life” look. The actors got to spend a lot of time with their true life alter-egos. Hackman, unfortunately, did not get along well at all with Egan. It would cause a lot of set stress, as Egan was not only a consultant on the film, but played his boss in the movie. It didn’t help that director William Friedkin never wanted Hackman in the role to Egan with. Hackman nearly quit several times over his feelings for Egan and his inability to see himself in such a distasteful character. To both Friedkin’s and Hackman’s credit, the move never came to replace him. I doubt very much the movie would have gone on to the great classic success it has enjoyed with another actor in the role of Popeye Doyle.
The case begins when the two leads, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) and Sonny “Cloudy” Russo (Scheider) observe a group of known drug gangsters in the Copacabana celebrating the sale of a ton of drugs. They decide to follow the guys, leading to a luncheonette. For a couple of weeks they watch guys bringing in briefcases and leaving without them They suspect this is the money drop to finance the next huge shipment. After fighting to get a wiretap, they overhear a Frenchman calling about the drugs. The boys investigate until they are close to bringing the whole French Connection down.
The story very closely follows the events of the actual case. The detectives’ names were slightly altered, but the actors did everything they could to imitate the real persons. Scheider asked Sonny Grosso to borrow his watch, rings, and gun to help him get into the character. The set was crawling with police officers, most of them friends or associates of the lead characters. Friedkin insisted that the ending be true to actual events. He met with resistance, because he was breaking an unwritten law that the movie must end on a positive note and not a downer. Of course, there are added characters, and certain facts were dramatized. The most famous of these dramatizations, of course, was the chase scene. It is still regarded today as the best car chase ever put on film. Certainly there have been flashier chases before and since, but this one stands out above the rest. Doyle chases an elevated train in order to beat it to the next station to catch the bad guy who is on it. Depending on who you believe, the scene is stolen. What that means is there were no permits or special precautions taken. The crew just got in the car and went crazy on live unregulated streets. The accidents you see are real and did not involve other “stunt” cars, but rather actual vehicles that got in the way of the 90 MPH chase. Friedkin readily admits it was irresponsible and dangerous. He acknowledges it was a miracle that no one got hurt and wouldn’t have done it today. I say it all depends upon who you ask, because Hackman insists that roads were indeed blocked for up to a 4 block radius and that police were on hand in legions. Whatever the real story, it still looks great and will never be forgotten.
The French Connection was unlike any police procedural before it. These cops worked hard and played out their hunches. There’s not a lot of exposition, so you have to pay attention. This movie doesn’t tell you what’s going on. It shows you what’s going on. Audiences were used to having some character spill all of the necessary exposition, but they didn’t get that here. In writing classes they always admonish you to show, not tell. This movie takes that writer’s axiom to the limit. There’s plenty of action, in fact, some of the best ever. There is also plenty of surveillance and following of suspects. Above it all Gene Hackman makes it a character study that supersedes even the case itself. Popeye Doyle isn’t a likable character; Hackman knew that firsthand. But he is a dynamic individual, a pit bull. When he got his teeth into something, he wasn’t about to let go. And you won’t be able to let go of this film once you’ve seen it. It’ll have you picking your feet…in Poughkeepsie.
The French Connection is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is a pretty good 1080p image brought to you through a strong AVC/MPEG-4 codec. But there is a complication. Friedkin has decided to completely overhaul the color timing of the film. The result is a print that he considers “better than it has ever looked”, but unfortunately it isn’t any longer the same film. Friedkin completely washed the color out of the film. He then used a black & white base infused with an entirely crazy oversaturated print to create what he describes as a pleasing pastel image. Again, maybe that’s an acceptable look for the film, but it is not how this film once looked. Therefore you are not getting the same movie experience you did back in 1971. I don’t want to get into the whole “who has the right to change a film” issue in this space. I just want you to understand that this is not a true representation of the original film, nor is it intended to be. Colors are quite desaturated and are very cold. The pastel layering is intended to add realism, but it does the opposite in my opinion. There is at times a blur to the color that is counterproductive to the razor sharpness and detail of a high definition disc. There are moments when the sharpness does prevail, and we get something stunning. When the French bad guys are talking on the coast, you see some wonderfully rich water blues. Black levels are good. Unfortunately, if you compare this presentation to the original work, it is difficult for me to grade this change as good. I can understand the desire to use modern technology to change the essence of an older film, but I’d like at least the option of the original as well. Perhaps, as is the case with colorized Blu-rays, Fiedkin had offered us a toggle option, I would have been far less critical of the decision.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track does an impressive job of taking an almost 40 year old movie and expanding it without treading too much on the original material. You have the mono option if you’re a purist. It sports an average 3.5 mbps bit rate. The discordant score is used the most in the surround mix. Don Ellis used the little known quarter tone scale to create a very harsh and uncomfortable sound. It fits the film in a lot of ways but can wear on your ears. The use of surround spread to widen the score actually helped it to blend better and be less of a distraction than it used to be. There is an unedited version of the score provided in what is called an Isolated Score. This is really an alternative score edit and not just the music, which we’ve come to identify with the term “isolated score”. Dialog is clean and perfectly placed. The film has aged well in the sound department.
There are 2 Audio Commentaries. The first is with director William Friedkin, and man, does that cat like to talk. He is tireless and rambles on quite a bit. Too much caffeine, perhaps. The second is the better and it features Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. They provide tons of insight and add a warmth to it all.
All features are in HD.The extras are found on 2 discs. The first disc contains the film and an Introduction by William Friedkin. It also, naturally, contains the commentary tracks. There is also an optional Trivia Box that allows you to read a text box during the film, offering various tidbits about the film.
Most of the features are found on Disc 2:
Deleted Scenes: Friedkin provides an introduction to each of the cuts. He explains why they are cut. The scenes come from a 16mm master reel that he used to take on talks. That means the quality is pretty low, even though the scenes are presented in HD. Most of them are Hackman character moments that would have indeed, slowed down the film. There is an S&M scene that was cut because it was deemed too risqué. It also would have just slowed it all down.
Anatomy Of A Chase: Friedkin hosts this 20 minute look at the film’s famous chase sequence. He revisits the locations in the chase along with producer Philip D’Antoni. He talks about the various stages and how they were filmed.
Heckman On Doyle: Not to put too fine a point on it, but Gene Hackman hated the man his character was based on. He’s polite about it here, but he doesn’t sugarcoat it either.
Friedkin and Grosso Remember The Real French Connection: Here the two sit and talk about the original case and the events leading up to the film. They recall fond memories of making the film. It seems a lot of time is spent by Grosso trying to justify the personality of Egan. The piece is about 19 minutes in length and compares and contrasts the film with the facts.
Scene Of The Crime: This is another one of Friedkin revisiting scene locations from the film. They talk about the shooting in the back scene. It’s only about 5 minutes long.
Color Timing The French Connection: If you’re interested in the details of how Friedkin changed the film’s color presentation, this 13 minute piece shows you, in detail, exactly what he did and why. Draw your own conclusions on the merits.
Cop Jazz – The Music Of The French Connection: If you’re not sure why it is this score sounds so dissonant to you, you’ll learn why here. Ellis commissioned the creation of special quarter tone instruments to give the music this unsettling nature.
Rogue Cop – The Noir Connection: This 14 minute piece overanalyzes certain aspects of the film. It tries to make a noir connection that honestly isn’t there.
BBC Documentary – The Poughkeepsie Shuffle: This nearly one hour documentary looks at all of the players in both the film and the original case. It does a thorough job of taking you inside the film and its famous police case. The footage is rough looking, but likely as good as exists.
Making The Connection: This is another one hour feature that is hosted by Sonny Grosso. He revisits the people and places of both the case and the film. He breaks down several scenes and lets you know what was really going on at that point. It’s a close look at the film and the case that spawned it. Grosso is a little grandiose at times, but it’s a fitting style for the quiet member of the two-man team that made the real French Connection bust.
If you’ve never seen this film, you should. It’s a classic for so many reasons I couldn’t possibly cite them all for you now. If you love great characters, you won’t be able to take your eyes off of Gene Hackman. The chase scene will get your heart racing; if it doesn’t 32 states consider you clinically dead. This is filmmaking during an era of true filmmaking. Without clever computer graphics or even camera control, The French Connection brought you into the streets and put it in your face. It was a perfect storm of events and elements that come together once in a lifetime, but preserved forever on this outstanding Blu-ray release. You might argue whether Blu-ray’s arrived. But I assure you: “Popeye’s here”.