Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: The French Connection (1971)

As we move forward through 50 years of cinema we plunge into post-classical Hollywood

Wed, Aug 28, 2013, 22:32


It’s 1971 and the new Hollywood is getting into its rhythm. Hal Ashby releases the extraordinary Harold and Maude. Peter Bogdanovich directs the beautiful, sad The Last Picture Show. Alan Pakula gives us the brilliant Kulte. And William Friedkin delivers the thrilling The French Connection.

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Allow me to repeat an observation about the supposed new dawn that spread across Hollywood in the early 1970s. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t any sort of myth. The studios really did release a great many excellent films during this period. The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Chinatown and The Exorcist were all on their way. Here’s my point: almost nobody recognised it as a golden age at the time. I guess this is usually the case with golden ages. Check out this fascinating video in which Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel select their favourite films of the 1970s. Having read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and watched a dozen documentaries on the era, we might reasonably expect Gene and Roger to wax enthusiastically. They give no impression whatsoever that American cinema has gone through a great period. For an even stranger insight, seek out the boys’ summation of the 1980s. There is still no sense that the 1970s were some great lost period in US cinema.

Keep in mind, also, that not all viewers were so enamoured with the new films. The Nouvelle Vague tributes did not play so well in Boise, Idaho. The allusions to neo-realist Italian cinema was not universally adored. I can remember my parents returning from a viewing of The Godfather with their pals and declaring themselves deeply puzzled by the labyrinthine plot, gloomy photography and grumpy acting.

The truth is that the notion of the Great Era didn’t really set in until as late as the 1990s. It’s not that critics didn’t admire the films. It was more that they hadn’t quite realised that the dawn was over. It took that long for pundits to accept that Lucas and Spielberg had changed the game forever and the studios were no longer likely to put their weight behind a film like The Conversation or Deliverance.

Anyway, The French Connection offers a fine example of the new Hollywood in its formative years. The irrepressible Friedkin — who entertained us greatly at the Light House last year — had been struggling away in the industry for years when he stumbled his way across The French Connection. The story is not particularly novel. Indeed, we now know that the drug business is a deal messier than it is portrayed in the film. But the manner of the telling was startling. The camera moved. The dialogue overlapped. Friedkin allowed in some improvisation. He shot on city streets among real members of the public.

Much of this is taken for granted now. But, at the time, that degree of verité was the preserve of high-brow experimentalists such as John Cassavetes. You didn’t shoot crime movies in that fashion. Remember that film noir had a bit to do with expressionism. Real life doesn’t look much like The Maltese Falcon or Out of the Past. Real life is not nearly so well lit. The French Connection revelled in the ugliness of New York as it slid towards bankruptcy and collective nervous breakdown.

The film is, of course, also more than a little exciting. The car chase is a riot and Gene Hackman has rarely been so charismatically rumpled. Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie? Do you? Do you?

Aside from the films listed at the top, we also considered Dirty Harry, Get Carter, Walkabout, McCabe & Mrs Miller, The Sorrow and the Pity, Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange. Golly! That was quite a year.