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THE FRENCH CONNECTION
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzufii
Director:  William Friedkin
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  February 24, 2009

"All right...Popeye's here!"

Film ****

Endless hours on stakeout.  Scoping suspicious individuals and following them all over the city.  Watching out of the corner of your eye for a transaction that takes less than a second.  Finding the man with the drugs, and not busting him, taking a huge risk that he’ll lead you to the big connection, but hoping he doesn’t spot you in the meantime.

Such is the life of a narcotics officer, and that life is captured masterfully in William Friedkin’s classic cop drama The French Connection.  This movie revolutionized the police film, by taking audiences into the lives of the men who relentlessly follow the money and the drugs.

The film is based on an actual NYPD case from 1962, in which two narcs, Eddie “Popeye” Egan and Sonny “Cloudy” Grasso almost miraculously stumbled onto the biggest heroin bust in the nation’s history, unraveling a scheme that was bringing millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs into the United States from France.

William Friedkin, known primarily as a documentarian at that point in his career, was a good choice to man the project of bringing their story to the screen.  His gritty sense of realism made the picture a lot different from any police movie that came before, and indeed, helped to create a different kind of cop for the genre.  Popeye Doyle (Hackman) is a flawed character.  Though his dedication to duty and relentless pursuit of dealers and users made him a good cop, his propensity towards racism, women, and bad temper darkened his image.  We learn that at least one time, his hunches cost the life of another cop.

His partner, Buddy Russo (Scheider) is equally dedicated, but a little more grounded.  As a team, the men wore their badges 24 hours a day.  They weren’t afraid to cross imaginary lines; the only real difference was exactly how far they were willing to go.

The case began to take shape almost by accident, as the two partners shared an off duty drink in a nightclub and witnessed a celebration going on a few tables away.  Recognizing several key players in the New York drug market, they decide to follow them.  Learning that the dealers’ connections were bigger than they had imagined, Popeye and Buddy eventually trace the source to a French godfather (Rey), who is using a television star from his homeland and some Lincoln cars in an ingenious way to import his product.

There are several key sequences that have cemented the movie’s reputation over the decades.  My two favorites are both chase scenes.  The first is a foot chase, where Popeye tails his man above ground and below ground, in and out of the subway system, trying to keep him in sights without giving himself away.  The conclusion of it is one of the movie’s defining images.

The second, of course, has been called the greatest car chase ever filmed, even topping Steve McQueen’s Bullitt from a few years earlier.  The production of the sequence has become the stuff of legends…with only one take, Friedkin and his stunt driver barreled down the streets of New York in pursuit of an elevated train.  There was very little time for set-up or safety precautions:  some of the accidents in the scene were accidents for real.  Most of the people in the shots were not hired drivers or extras; they were actual New Yorkers who almost stumbled into the way of a dangerous sequence!  Thankfully, no one really died, and even Friedkin himself has blamed the recklessness of the filming on his hotheaded youth, swearing he would never try such a potentially lethal scene for a movie again.

But it’s that kind of reckless, almost unplanned feeling approach that help make the film as exciting as it is.  Friedkin would often rehearse his actors and his camera crews separately so that shots would be a little less smooth and more like watching real events unfolding.  His eye for detail brought a side of New York to the screen seldom seen before, but often seen since.  He had a real feel for the cops in the story, even to having the real men Eddie Egan and Sonny Grasso on set as technical advisors, and even appearing in roles as Hackman and Scheider’s supervisors.

But the actors deserve credit as well.  Scheider would receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as the no-nonsense Buddy, and of course, Gene Hackman’s stardom was guaranteed when he took home the Best Actor statuette for playing Popeye.  To his credit, he endured much antagonism from director Friedkin, who never believed that a mild mannered Midwesterner like Hackman could play a gritty, hard edged New York cop.  Fans and critics believed otherwise.

The French Connection is simply dynamite entertainment…one of the best movies ever made, and arguably the greatest of all the great cop films.

Video ****

What a thrill!  The French Connection looks gorgeous with this high definition anamorphic transfer from Fox.  The images are clean, bright, with excellent color rendering and sharp, crisp detail from start to finish.  The opening shot, ironically, is one of only about three problem scenes:  the camera shows a blue sky that is grungy and grainy looking, but just like that, it’s over and the beauty of this transfer kicks in.  The other two are also brief, with a little less detail and more haziness, but truth be told, what’s great about this presentation more than makes up for less than 1 minute’s worth of noticeable problems…much more.  This is easily one of the best looking 70s movies on Blu-ray I’ve ever seen…Fox did absolutely right by this classic title.

Audio ****

I don’t always expect much from new 5.1 mixes of older titles, but Fox delivers a quality uncompressed audio track for this disc.  Don Ellis’ musical score, with its punchy bass lines, gets a superb boost from the subwoofer.  The rest of the audio is encompassing and ambient, with the rear channels getting discreet signals to create the environment of the busy, noisy sections of New York.  The dynamic range really comes to life during the car sequence and the finale.  Dialogue, of course, is clear and nicely rendered throughout.  A commendable effort!

Features ****

The extras are generous and terrific.  My favorite is the William Friedkin commentary track, which is an enjoyable and informative listen, and for a movie like this, invaluable.  The second commentary track is scene specific, and features alternations of Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider…not as good as I hoped, as it’s a very sparse track that you have to kind of skip around to listen to.  Both of these are on disc one, as well as the theatrical trailer.

Disc two rounds out the supplements with three documentaries:  the excellent BBC production “Poughkeepsie Shuffle”, detailing the production and featuring cast and crew interviews with Friedkin, Hackman, Scheider and more, including the real Sonny Grasso.  The second documentary, “Making the Connection”, features more interviews and focuses more on the story of the real men behind the French Connection bust.  The third is a deleted scene documentary hosted by Friedkin, who discusses seven scenes that didn’t make the final cut and why (you can also opt to view the scenes separately).  Rounding it out is a stills gallery and the trailer again, as well as one for French Connection II.

Summary:

Nothing makes me happier as a review than to say one of the all time great movies is now one of the all time great Blu-ray.  With Fox’s Five Star Collection double disc offering of The French Connection, I can say that with full and utter conviction. 

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