Friday, October 9, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The French Connection" (1971)

Scene from The French Connection
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The French Connection
Release Date: October 9, 1971
Director:  William Friedkin
Written By: Ernest Tidyman (screenplay), Robin Moore (book), Howard Hawks (uncredited) 
Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Running Time: 104 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director (William Friedkin)
-Best Actor (Gene Hackman)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Editing

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Supporting Actor (Roy Scheider)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Sound

Other Best Picture Nominees

-A Clockwork Orange
-Fiddler on the Roof
-The Last Picture Show
-Nicholas and Alexandra

And the winner is...

In the realm of cop dramas, there are few that are as beloved as that of director William Friedkin's The French Connection. With the iconic character of racist cop Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman), it tells the story of a drug investigation that is as gritty and memorable as they come. It is the film that created the iconic chase scene, which itself was dangerous and as guerrilla as they come. Even 40 years later, the film still has all of the spark that puts most action films since to shame. It's a film that redefined the thriller. It also came from one of the least plausible places imaginable: Howard Hawks.

According to Friedkin, he was dating the legendary director's daughter. When he asked the filmmaker to critique Friedkin's work, he claimed that it was "lousy." While this reads as an insult, Hawks also claimed that he wanted Friedkin to make a good chase that was better than anyone else's. It just so happened that he got the chance when studio head Daryl F. Zanuck proposed that he would make ANY film, as long as it could be budgeted at $2 million. When Friedkin came forward, Zanuck said that if he failed, he would have to direct another episode of Naked City. This inspired Friedkin to make a film with a morally ambiguous protagonist, which was very different from the aforementioned TV series. While the film would be acclaimed for its naturalism, Friedkin claims that another major influence was a pioneer of the style: director Costa-Gavras' Z.

The casting was rather divisive for a lot of reasons. Among those who were considered, Peter Boyle refused to play the role after feeling bad about playing an evil character the year prior in Joe. Lee Marvin refused to play Doyle because he was anti-authoritarian. Others, like Robert Mitchum, simply hated the story. Columnist Jimmy Breslin was eventually selected and had two weeks of rehearsal. He would drop out and Gene Hackman would fill in the role. Unlike Breslin, this happened without a rehearsal. Instead, it happened over a conversation that the duo had one afternoon. Likewise, Friedkin wanted to cast the villain as the actor from director Luis Bunuel's Belle du Jour named Francisco Rabal. He mistakenly accepted the wrong actor, Fernando Rey. He settled with Rey when Rabal was revealed to not speak English. While Rey couldn't speak French well, his lines were dubbed and he was kept aboard.

As keeping with Zanuck's low budgeted policy, the film was very scrappy. In many scenes, actual police officers were used as extras. This caused the actors to pick up lingo, thus often improvising instead of following script. Doyle's character was based off of real life officer Eddie Egan, who was often on set and gave approval of more questionable scenes, including where Doyle shoots a man in the back (this would become part of the poster art). Hackman claimed to have been opposed to the obscene language and cringed after he said it. In most cases, the long dolly shots were filmed with the camera operator being pushed around in a wheelchair. This is most noticeable when in a subway scene Doyle enters and the operator stands up to follow him. Likewise, a lot of the film was shot without permits.

The most famous scene of all, the car chase, was a mixture of both. While various small moments, such as a woman barely missing a collision, were planned, the film extended into actual traffic. The chase was set to be filmed between a five block radius and, with assistance from police and assistant directors controlling traffic, was mostly safe. Friedkin took duty of filming these scenes from the backseat of the car because the camera operator had a family and Friedkin didn't. Hackman also drove in some of the safer scenes. However, the filming extended beyond these five blocks and ran into real traffic. The only real defense that the film had was that it had a police siren in tow. In one case, the car used came into a collision with an unplanned car. The driver, near his home, had just left for work when it happened. The crew took it on themselves to pay for all of the repairs.

The film was a success and was considered to be one of the best thrillers of 1971. The French Connection also became the first R-rated film to win Best Picture. This was held until the MPAA excised the X rating, thus shifting the title to Midnight Cowboy. The film won five Oscars. Among the more speculative wins was for Best Adapted Screenplay. While it was based off of the script, nobody is entirely sure how much of the final film is from the script. Some stories claimed that a lot of the dialogue was improvised. Others claim that it was very faithful to the script. Nobody knows for sure. It helped to spawn a new realism to cinema and helped to launch Friedkin as an intense and bold director. He would continue to explore this style in his next film The Exorcist, which became the first horror film nominated for Best Picture.

The legacy of the film is very apparent in most of cinema. The famous chase scene has been called the best in history, even beating Bullitt. Many consider Friedkin's work in To Live and Die in L.A. to be his attempt to outdo himself. Within the franchise, the film had a sequel with the return of Hackman and Rey to their respective roles. There was later a made-for-TV movie in which Doyle was played by Ed O'Neill. While filming, there was one location that Popeye enjoyed eating at. This was later renamed to Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken in honor of Hackman's character. It later would become one of the most successful international chains of chicken fast food locations. To date, it's one of only two Best Picture winners to inspire a chain of restaurants (the other being Forrest Gump's Bubba Gump Shrimp Company). 

The French Connection is a strange Best Picture winner, largely because of how few action films have even stood a chance within the category. However, this film marked the start of a new revolution in film. It was a call for a more renegade style, with grittier stories and more complicated characters. More than the previous year's Patton, it was evidence of the impact that the 70's New Hollywood directors would have on the decade to come. It was unrepentant cinema that was also just really well made. It feels dangerous because it was. Even if Friedkin never made a film with as much acclaim, it feels like the perfect film to usher in a new era of cinema, and what better way than with the wisecracking, racist Popeye Doyle? It's intensity lives on, holding up better than films half of its age. 

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