The subject of this week’s Opinion Battles poll is “Favourite Best/Supporting Actor Winning Performance” and, while it was a tough decision, I chose Gene Hackman for his Oscar-winning turn as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in THE FRENCH CONNECTION.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1971, THE FRENCH CONNECTION is nothing short of a masterpiece. Based on a true story involving the largest heroin seizure (at that time), the film starred Hackman, Roy Scheider as Doyle’s partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, and Fernando Rey as the French drug lord Alain Charnier and was directed by William Friedkin.
Friedkin shot in a documentary style, which only adds to the realism of the film. Handheld cameras are often used that makes the audience feel like they are running alongside Doyle and Russo as they, in the opening scenes, chase a drug dealer through the streets of Brooklyn. This technique is again used in a cat-and-mouse sequence involving Doyle, Charnier, and a subway car, which ends in what is probably the most iconic shot of the film:
The film is probably most remembered for its iconic car chase, which producer Phil D’Antoni had insisted needed to be better than the one that had been seen previously in another film he had produced: BULLITT (1968). The main difference in THE FRENCH CONNECTION was that Doyle’s car would be chasing, not another car, but an elevated train containing Charnier’s right-hand man, Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi). The result is truly one of the best car chases ever put to film, including multiple crashes (some staged; some accidental) and some incredible stunt driving by Bill Hickman (who also plays the cop Mulderig).
In addition to helping to usher in a new style of filmmaking for the 1970s, THE FRENCH CONNECTION is also notable for its experimental musical score, composed by avant garde jazz musician Don Ellis. The film opens over the familiar 20th Century Fox logo, but without the usual fanfare. The result is a jarring explosion of dissonance to open the film:
The majority of the score in the film consists of non-melodic jazz sequences—one of the only recurring motifs being a short melody played often by the string bass. This melody usually appears during tailing or chase scanes and leads into one of my favorite musical sequences in the film, when Doyle chases Charnier through the streets of New York and eventually to the Grand Central subway station:
It’s worth noting that a significant amount of the music that Ellis wrote did not make it into the film. While I think the music that was used works well in the film itself, much of it makes for a challenging listen on its own. If you listen to the music in the background of the film, there are times when there is a simple, droning dissonant string figure that works really well to build the underlying tension. In contrast, a number of disused cues work rather well on their own:
THE FRENCH CONNECTION remains one of my all-time favorite films. The performances are superb across the board, and William Friedkin’s approach to the material was revolutionary for the time (earning him the Oscar for Best Directing). The music, while mostly atonal and often a challenge to listen to in isolation, works perfectly well in the film, both underscoring the quiet, tense moments and helping to propel the chase sequences.