Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection is proof that sometimes all you need to do is be good at one thing. It's sort of the Rey Ordóñez of movies.

Rey Ordóñez was a Cuban defector who played for the New York Mets in the mid-90s through early-00s. When he first joined the Mets in '96 he was hailed as the second coming of Ozzie Smith (even the Wizard of Oz said so). And he was, by all accounts, an absolutely remarkable defensive shortstop. He won three consecutive Gold Gloves and set a record for shortstops for the most consecutive games played without an error. But he was totally one dimensional. He couldn't hit for power or average and in particularly un-Ozzie like fashion, couldn't steal a base if his life depended on it (His best season for swipes was 1997 when he stole a whopping 11 bases and batted an even-more-whopping .216).

Rey couldn't hit, but he could field like a mother and Mets fans will always remember him as "great" for that. And, to me, that's why The French Connection is considered a great movie even though it's not very good. It has an all-timer of a car chase scene. Forget Ozzie Smith: this is the Honus Wagner of chase scenes. Everything else about the movie is average to poor, and the stuff that probably seemed really fresh in 1971 looks awfully dated today. Everything except that chase scene. But the chase is so utterly perfect, it obliterates everything else around it. We remember Rey's glove and Hackman behind the wheel of that brown car narrowly avoiding that baby carriage. And we always will.

I'm sure in 1971, The French Connection looked really edgy. In 1971, cops still meant Dragnet, which had finally gone off the air just the year before. So the cops in TFC, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider) with their bad attitudes, bad table manners, and bad language must have looked and sounded like they were from another planet. Today, I see that we exchanged one set of cliches for another. Instead of the duty-bound, well-appointed "Just the facts, ma'am" type we got the slovenly, rule breaking maverick.

I suppose since TFC was based on a real case (chronicled in a non-fiction novel by Robin Moore) it had an additional air of authenticity. Who knows; maybe it was all true straight from the cops' mouth sto Moore's ears to director William Friedkin's camera lens. But to these eyes it all looks just as constructed as Joe Friday. For once, I'd like to see "realistic" cops, which Doyle and Russo allegedly are, do some paperwork. Real cops do paperwork but "realistic" cops don't; "realistic" cops stand in the middle of the road with their badge, stop passing cars, kick the driver out and steal it while hollering "I need your vehicle for OFFICIAL POLICE BUSINESS!"

No, TFC is stylized, and rather consciously so. Huge stretches go by without a single line of important dialogue and really, very little actually happens, narratively speaking, and when it does, it's often difficult to fully understand. The somewhat open-ended ending was almost certainly revolutionary at the time but it's also hugely anti-climactic and handled in a way to stifle most of the drama. And after the great car chase, the audience doesn't have much left to give anyway: it's like the big showstopper at the end of Act I of a Broadway musical — nothing else for the rest of the show can match it.

Regardless, The French Connection has become an almost shorthand for cool, edgy, smart cop movies. But that's ok. I loved Rey Ordóñez when I was a teenager too.


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