The French Connection was a real thing. I’m not going to re-edit the details here but know that in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s smugglers trafficked more heroin than you can count from the Middle East through Western Europe and eventually through North America. Its rise and fall demonically haunts pre- and post-war Europe through its enormous involvement at all levels of corruption, from local informants and drug runners up through the highest echelons of government and other agency. It was a perfect combination of circumstance and trading one aesthetic and global crisis for another, lesser (?) one.
The French Connection took to dramatize and compartmentalize 40 years of serious drug trafficking into 2 hours of thrill, substance and action. William Friedkin’s dramatic distillation of decades of drugs helped to liven the pulse of filmmaking that beat so heavily from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Much like the conflict for which the film was named, The French Connection took clever advantage of circumstance to help craft its message. The perfect combination of casting, direction, cinematography, special effects, production and source material together (among other factors) drove this movie to such heights as a political action thriller and an investigative crime drama, that to try to replicate it is almost impossible. Yet improbably, and mind-blowingly it’s probably the worst of the 4 movies to win Best Picture from 1969 to 1972.
If for no other reason, whether drugs and the people who chase them or the lore of the Oscars means nothing to you, The French Connection should draw you in for its car chase, often cited as the most thrilling in film history. Directors have been trying, collectively mind you, to replicate the cinematographic prowess for over 40 years. Like every other aspect of this film, the perfect combinations helped to vault the chase scene into a marvel a sum more than its parts: the chase through the raised light-rail track through Brooklyn, Gene Hackman’s grit as “Popeye” Doyle, the cameraman’s decision to strap a camera at 16 fps to the front of Popeye’s carriage and the all-but-plausible obstacles in Popeye’s way. It’s an extended scene too, done in several takes, but edited as if Friedken set up cameras along the way to punctuate Hackman’s determination to catch the rat bastard who tried to kill him.
I use ‘worst’ relatively, because your worst Best Picture nomination in the early 1970s trumps most of the best ones today in creativity, originality, and general pulse on zeitgeist representation. What we often take as a given for technological advancement as a positive growth measure, sometimes having less everything forces the most talented directors, actors, cinematographers and editors to really think and create masterpieces. To wit: Avatar, with its almost unlimited budget excelled in its 3D technique (arguably a waste) but failed in almost every other category. Story? A Fern Gully remake. Casting? Misguided. Editing? Ha. What’s missing in Avatar, but present in Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection and The Godfather is sincerity. We’ll always feel the urgency in the films of the golden era, but modern film all too often feels like someone is daring us to spend money for the production team to make fun of us: I dare you to spend $20 to get a headache watching Sam Worthington both over- and under-act simultaneously.
Again the creative hotbed of the commercial/artistic alliance allowed film (and music, literature, food, politics for that matter) to explore a series of masterstrokes. We will almost always be able to identify this golden age by its culture, more so than any other generation (challenge me, please), and The French Connection fits as both a piece of high art and an even bigger historical thriller. Rounding out the nominees for 1971, Kubrick’s interpretation (?) of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Norman Jewison’s A Fiddler On The Roof, The Last Picture Show and Nicholas and Alexandra. We were so lucky.