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French Connection 1 & 2 [Blu-ray]

Director: William Friedkin, John Frankenheimer
Cast: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco

(US DVD: 24 Feb 2009)

A nearly 40-year-old movie has managed to generate a specialized sort of controversy as The French Connection sees its first release in the Blu-ray format. For this release of his crime classic, director William Friedkin has tinkered with the coloring, aiming for a grittier, grainier look that he claims was always his intent. Purists have argued that this amounts to a repaint job, without the authorization of cinematographer Owen Roizman, or direct indication on the packaging that this is, in a sense, a different movie.


The color-futzing doesn’t get much attention in Friedkin’s audio commentary, which spends a lot of time explaining the story and how it relates to the real-life case it was based on, as well as his techniques and influences during production. This kind of boilerplate description sinks a lot of DVD commentaries, but while Friedkin’s musings aren’t wildly entertaining, they’re not exactly unhelpful, either, given the movie’s elemental lack of exposition.


Rather than dedicating significant commentary time, Friedkin explains his new tweaks in a short instructional video, “Color Timing The French Connection” (featured or, depending on how you look at it, buried, on the package’s second disc). The process, based on a technique from the days of three-strip color film that involved adding a fourth strip of black-and-white film into the mix, is fascinating. Friedkin and company have essentially used digital tools to recreate this old-timey trickery: a cleaned-up scan of the original print is digitally oversaturated and blurred, and then bled into a black-and-white version of the same image. The result, as Friedkin explains, looks less Hollywoodized, with more muted (though still vivid) pastel tones.


Friedkin and his tech guy toggle back and forth between versions of sample shots, intending to illustrate that the difference is subtle but effective, and on the basis of the small, controlled excerpts, this seems to be the case. It’s difficult to mount a proper comparison, though, without a more traditional transfer of the full film to the Blu-Ray format—AV experts around the internet have already had a go at the kinds of side-by-side screen captures most consumers, even film-loving ones, won’t have the equipment, time, or inclination to perform themselves.


Offhand—I was watching the movie straight through for the first time—the new Blu-ray transfer looks terrific (at least on my less than state-of-the-art TV): cold and washed out, yes, but nonetheless crisp and often visually stunning.  It could be argued that my very enjoyment of the visuals is a sort of fraud on Friedkin’s behalf; this is not simply a cleaned-up version of what 1971 moviegoers would have seen, but a distinct change. In fact, the director claims in a pre-movie introduction and again in the color-timing feature that this Blu-ray version is truer to his vision of the film than anything released before, including those original prints.


The lack of a Blu-ray release attempting to reproduce that original version is puzzling. Even George Lucas eventually put out limited edition theatrical versions of the famously tweaked (and, to his mind, improved) Star Wars trilogy; maybe some French Connection-flavored double-dipping is on the way, but it seems like Friedkin and Fox have missed an opportunity to simply advertise a brand-new special edition of the film from the outset.


The question of an artist’s right to play around with his own creation would be somewhat mooted if a third disc included the original theatrical version (of course, this raises other AV nerd questions: how much cleaning up of an old movie is appropriate anyway?  Should all visible grain be scrubbed away?  What about genuine errors?).


These questions will generate more heat because the film in question still plays so well. Following the pursuit of heroin smugglers by narcotics detective “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), Friedkin dispenses with emotion and pretension, and even much traditional story arc. The film is instead full of gritty (and sometimes off-book) procedure—the famous chase scene with Hackman in a car pursuing a sniper on a runaway subway car, of course, but also plenty of tailing and staking out; The French Connection has a couple of the most exciting low-speed foot chases ever put to film.


Friedkin and Roizman move the camera forward relentlessly and Jerry Greenberg edits everything together with a jittery rhythm; they’re indulging in pure filmmaking. (Consider that this grim, flawlessly made bit of entertainment won the Best Picture Oscar, and suddenly The Departed‘s win in 2007 doesn’t seem like such a surprise.)


The Blu-ray extras are ample, if not exactly essential. The aforementioned director’s commentary is joined by one from Hackman, which sounds pieced together from interviews—he’s often speaking about scenes well before or after they appear onscreen, and the chatter stops entirely about halfway through. Twelve minutes of deleted scenes—mostly character moments excised for the sake of momentum—further illustrate the final product’s pared-down force.


Along with the Oscar-winning original, the less-heralded French Connection II is also making its Blu-ray debut. Friedkin, so present on the other set, is nowhere to be found; similarly pulp-leaning John Frankenheimer (who died in 2002) took the reins for the follow-up, which follows Doyle’s improbable pursuit of the original bad guys back to their home country. Hackman is philosophical in a retrospective interview about the challenges of sequelizing such a successful film and Frankenheimer’s less guttural, somewhat more continental take on similar (sometimes too-similar) material.


What seems like tempered affection from Hackman seems about right; the sequel’s procedure, though handled with polish, plods where its predecessor barrels forward. The movie’s most interesting plot turn is also its strangest: the villains keep Doyle captured and incapacitated by hooking him on their heroin for a protracted addiction-and-kicking sequence that plays like a cross between a gritty social drama and a James Bond film.


But any thematic concerns don’t much stick and the movie drifts on and off of autopilot mode, though Frankenheimer does orchestrate an impressive climactic shoot-out and chase, leading into an ending that seems incredibly abrupt even if you’ve just watched The French Connection. Frankenheimer seems to be trying for the basic nature of the earlier film: He takes us to an endpoint and drops us off without making a fuss. But watching The French Connection with its sequel draws attention to the subtle but inarguably greater care Friedkin brought to the earlier film. Decades-later tinkering may be the price.

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