The French Connection: Best Picture, 1971

The 44th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Helen Hayes, Alan King, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jack Lemmon. The 1970s, now regarded as a seminal decade in film history, had arrived with a newer, edgier sort of motion picture. The Academy responded with recognition for the likes of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (8 nominations, 2 wins), Stanley Kubrick’s controversial A Clockwork Orange (4 nominations, no wins), and The French Connection, with it’s 8 nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Supporting Actor (Roy Scheider), Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. Representing old Hollywood and the “tradition” of major Broadway musical-to-movie adaptations was Fiddler on the Roof (8 nominations, 3 wins), but a lot had changed in the years since the likes of Gigi, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music had swept the Oscars. Watching it all was was a symbol of old old Hollywood, 82-year old Charlie Chaplin, back after over two decades of HUAC-imposed exile in Europe to receive the night’s Honorary Award.

Ben Johnson won Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Last Picture Show, and Fiddler picked up Best Cinematography and Best Sound, but the big winner of the night was The French Connection. The film won its five remaining nominations, making William Friedkin (at 32) the youngest winning director in Academy history and marking the beginning of the new era in American filmmaking. The French Connection was also the first R-rated film to win the award, though this was hardly a notable distinction as X-rated Midnight Cowboy had won just two years before.

The French Connection follows the real-life investigation of New York City detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) and his partner Buddy Russo (Scheider) as they crack a large-scale international drug-smuggling scheme. The story is told with a gritty, semi-documentary realism that showcases the faults and failings of its heroes as much as those of its villains. Doyle, the tagline explains, is “bad news–but a good cop.” He is a volatile bigot whose methods are the definition of police brutality, but he works with ruthless efficiency on the narcotics beat and always gets his man.

Hackman and Scheider establish a great working dynamic between two very different characters. While Hackman may steal the show, it was Scheider’s quieter support that I felt most drawn to. More than just a partner or even a conscience, Russo is Doyle’s ambassador to the rest of the police force. He smooths over the messes created by Doyle’s bullying, go-to-hell attitude and allows him to keep going out on the street everyday and do what he is good at.

If The French Connection has a genuine weak point it is in failing to interest us in its villains and their machinations. When the film drags (which it seldom does) it is inevitably while we watch the criminals’ conversational scheming, only some of which is important and most of which is incomprehensible on the first go-round. More often than not, however, a few seconds will pass and you will be perched on the very edge of your seat, riveted.

As I mentioned above, the stylistic focus is on authenticity, and even without knowing beforehand that this story was based on actual events, I sensed intuitively that it must be. It has a feeling of immediacy and careful attention to detail that drops the viewer into the midst of the action. Detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, the men on whom the main characters are based, served as technical advisers, and also scored small roles as Doyle’s and Russo’s supervisors.

Of course, the movie’s centerpiece is the famous car chase, which has Doyle pursuing a hijacked train across the city, driving like a maniac and nearly totalling the car he is in. Friedkin later claimed that none of those accidents were planned, they were merely errors made by the stunt driver while performing some very difficult maneuvers, and were left in to add to the realism. Whether or not this is true, this element makes the scene, which at the time was widely considered to be the finest car chase ever filmed, surpassing even Steve McQueen’s famous chase across San Francisco in 1968’s Bullitt. Ironically, Steve McQueen had been offered the role of Doyle, but turned it down because he wanted to avoid duplicating himself.

Even without the car chase, however, there are plenty of magnificently tense sequences. These include the scene where Doyle chases a sniper on foot, and where Doyle, Russo, and a team of mechanics literally dismantle a car down to nothing (searching in places I didn’t know existed) in an attempt to find a stash of drugs. There are stake-outs, shake-downs, and roadblocks. There is a great little scene in a subway station where Doyle is frustrated when a suspect he is trying to tail keeps hopping on and off the subway, making his attempts at discretion (obviously not his strong suit) increasingly difficult.

Probably best of all is the film’s final moment, which arrives suddenly and without warning. A series of title cards follow, detailing the futures of all of the major characters (and several I didn’t remember seeing at all). Though it is nice in its way, this spoils the ending’s ambiguity a bit. However, it is still an amazing end to a striking film.

1971 saw a respectable film output, and a few alternate picks stand out. On a personal level, I have a major weak spot for Fiddler on the Roof (which, at the time, was the longest-running play in Broadway history). In the context of the period, perhaps, it feels like a conventional, out-of-touch choice, but in my opinion the film profited a great deal from new style of the decade. The material is treated to a level of historical and production authenticity that is (to my knowledge) unmatched in any previous movie musical. Director Norman Jewison outraged stage purists by casting little-known Israeli actor Topol (the first of that nation to be nominated for an Academy Award) in the main role over Brooklyn-native Zero Mostel, who had originated it, and the film was shot on location in Croatia rather than on a sound stage. It is a truly great production, and, especially in light of all the mediocre, silly musicals that had won the major awards during the preceding decade and a half (Gigi, anyone?) it deserves more recognition.

Shelving my Fiddler soapbox for a moment, I can’t ignore The Last Picture Show, which so perfectly and artfully captures the atmosphere of small-town West Texas. Assuredly a less “populist” and more critically-minded choice, I have to say that I would definitely have placed the award here over The French Connection. Indications are that another great choice would have been Robert Altman’s revisionist Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie (who was nominated for Best Actress, the film’s sole recognition), but not having seen it, I will refrain from commenting further.

~ by Jared on September 5, 2008.

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