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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Oscar Review: The French Connection (1971)

Drugs, car chases, and man named Popeye make The French Connection rank as one of the top 100 films of all time (AFI - #70).

Det. Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) and his partner "Cloudy" (played by Roy Scheider) are two narcotics cops on the streets of NYC. They never seem to catch more than small-time dealers despite following leads that seem to be headed for bigger and badder offenders. That is, until one day when they spot a suspicious character in a local bar.

After tailing the "last of the all-time big spenders" around the city all night they find him making a drop, switching from his Caddy to a less fancy car, entering a little sandwich shop, and his companion removing her blonde wig. Popeye's hunch is beginning to pan out. If only he can convince the higher-ups to let him follow through.

Meanwhile, two men and a television actor make their way into NY from the south of France and begin to lead Popeye, Cloudy, and their fellow cops all over the place as they broker a huge drug deal.

Made by the Frenchman and pulled off the case it is up to Doyle and his partner to solve this mystery all on their own.
Winning 5 of its 8 Oscar nominations - including Hackman's first Academy Award - The French Connection dominated the top spots at the 44th ceremonies.

Tonight was only my second time watching The French Connection in full and it had been more than half a dozen years or so, at least, since the last time - long enough for it to feel new to me - and I found that it wasn't quite as good overall as I had remembered.

The writing isn't great, even though it did win for best adapted screenplay, but it certainly makes up for it in the drama of the chase whether on foot as they shadow suspects or in the high-speed race with an elevated train. Hackman's portrayal of Popeye Doyle quickly became one of the most well-known film cops for his strength of will to follow through when his gut tells him what's right, ranking Doyle as AFI's #44 Film Hero.

Spoiler Alert:
One of the things I really liked about The French Connection that I had forgotten about since the last time, is the way it ends. From time to time I like to see a movie that either doesn't quite resolve itself at the end or the bad guys get away with it. When they're in the abandoned building in the closing minutes of the film, Popeye kills one of the good guys by mistake and you find out during the "where are they now" portion prior to the credits that the Frenchman's whereabouts are unknown and most of the accomplices got off easy leaving Doyle and Cloudy transferred out of narcotics.

I just get tired of happy endings sometimes. Maybe because I know that life doesn't always work out that way - the nice guy doesn't always get the girl, and the microfilm can make its way into the wrong hands - though, one of the reasons to watch a movie is to escape that very reality. But, to me, it's a little more daring, a little more original to make the good guys fall short. There are movies like Heat, where the audience is torn between rooting for the good cop in pursuit or the gang of bank robbers, which leave you thinking about the story on a much deeper level than one where everything is resolved as it should be.

The French Connection is a classic that should be on your list of movies to watch at least once.