[9 October 2012]
Instead of writing a boring expository introduction about France’s nouvelle vague and the style of crime cinema it spawned, I’ll go ahead and get straight to the point: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Jean-Luc Godard may be the standby cinephile favorite, what with having cemented the transgressive structure that countless nouvelle vague films would follow after it, but for top-tier, methodically structured crime dramas, Melville still remains the king after all these years. With works like Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge on his resume, Melville is demonstrably aware of how to put together a crime film that is intensely focused on method (e.g., the structure of a heist) and the tacit codes adopted by criminals.
Now, this may seem like completely tangential. After all, as the heading up top tells you, this review is for William Friedkin’s 1971 classic The French Connection, which does not include Melville in its credit reel. But upon watching this new Blu-Ray edition of The French Connection, what was most immediately striking is how the title doesn’t just describe a particular international pathway for the drug trade. In many ways, it’s an apt label to put on a movie that carries such strong connections with the style of nouvelle vague crime movies.
As any fan or student of that time period in French culture knows, the nouvelle vague was influenced by American cinema. Melville was an avowed fan of John Huston, going so far as to pay tribute to him in the final scene of his noir masterwork Le Doulos. French directors during this time tended to be more subversive; to this day there are likely many debates amongst aspiring film students about exactly what Alphaville ‘is’. Amidst the sea of strongly avant-garde directors (Godard, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, among others) Melville is comparatively a traditionalist. There are rarely any asymmetrical plot structures (Le Doulos being a big exception), no airy philosophical voiceovers, and especially no bizarre sci-fi mashups. There are always the straight citizens, the hoods, and the police. Crimes are committed, people are betrayed then interrogated, and fate usually has its way in the end.
It’s within these conventions that The French Connection finds its celluloid brethren. The plot involves the historical French Connection, wherein drugs were imported to the United States via Turkey and France. This story is significantly more expansive than the NYPD drug chase in this movie, but the implications of the events here are easy to trace. This is far from just being about Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy Russo (Roy Schieder) and their tough-guy detective antics.
Perhaps the greatest connection to Melville’s work here comes in the famed car chase scene. Melville took much pride in long or difficult shots: see the interrogation of Silien in Le Doulos and the Nazi march at the beginning of L’Armee des Ombrees. While the car chase in The French Connection isn’t a single shot, in terms of choreography it’s thrilling and dazzling. Everything prior to it serves largely as buildup, and when the fatalistic conclusion arrives it’s clear it’s the undeniable centerpiece.
Yet as significant as The French Connection is for its historical value (it is the first R-rated film to win Best Picture at the Oscars) and its place on a timeline of influences that bridge the Gallic and the American, it hasn’t aged with the distinction that movies like The Godfather or Midnight Cowboy. It’s undoubtedly a strong crime film, but like some of Melville’s work there are flaws. Characterization in a straightforward crime piece like this one is tricky to elevate beyond tropes; Hackman, who won the Best Actor statuette for his work here, is great, but amongst the many brilliant performances of his career this wouldn’t fit in the top five. The role of Doyle in Hackman’s storied career is that of a crucial stepping stone, not a landmark performance. Both he and Schieder perform admirably in their roles, but there isn’t a whole lot beneath their rugged exteriors.
This updated “Director’s Edition” Blu-Ray falls prey to a lot of the same problems that older movies do when they undergo digital restorations: some shots will look stunning and others will look as if they couldn’t catch up to the new transfer. The controversy surrounding the previous Blu-Ray release (Friedkin changed the coloration to get a “grittier” effect without consulting with the cinemaphotographer, who hated the decision) does not appear to be present, as the quality of the transfer is quite solid, and not in any way hazy or blurry. Overall, the transfer is a good one, and given the age of the movie it’s about as good as one would expect a restoration to be.
The greatest value of this particular Blu-Ray edition comes in the wealth of special features. Several featurettes and interviews give thorough perspectives from the director and actors. One excellent feature traces the noir elements of the movie. Also included, for those fans of Don Ellis’ score, is an isolated track where one can listen to all of the music from the movie.