Saturday, January 08, 2022



When I was 11 years old, The French Connection came out and joined a list of pictures I was too young to see (Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, Shaft) but would obsess over anyway. I even read the book, which somehow was okay with my parents because, I guess, it wasn’t rated R. I saw my first R-rated movie, Dirty Harry, later that year, but I never saw TFC until I was in college, and though it was among the first cassettes I ever bought for my new Betamax in 1982, once I finally did see it William Friedkin’s movie never lived up to my heightened expectations. Seeing it again last month for the first time in years only confirmed that, its landmark car chase excepted, I think of The French Connection as a fairly routine, relentless cop thriller that, despite Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning performance, is hardly the best of its kind.

In fact, I’d only ever “seen” the movie in MAD magazine (“WHAT’S THE CONNECTION?”) before I saw its sequel, French Connection II, at my hometown movie palace, the Alger Theater, sometime in late 1975. I was determined to love it, and I did like it a lot, though I remember thinking that it didn’t feel at all like what I expected its predecessor might. In fact, this would be the first of two sequels made from William Friedkin-directed megahits, both of which would stray from the path of simply ghosting the template of the original, a strategy that would not exactly endear either film to audiences or critics. The sequel John Frankenheimer made to TFC is certainly not an admirable oddity like Exorcist II: The Heretic, nor is it, like that film, a daring artistic failure, but it must have certainly frustrated those who came to theaters expecting their pulses to be pounded in the manner of the original film.

Whereas Popeye Doyle (and Hackman) by nature dominated the grim, burnt-out NYC milieu of the first film, FCII transplants the detective to Marseilles, where his overt racial bigotry can be directed exclusively, and in classic really-ugly-American fashion, toward his French counterparts, and where the movie can monitor Doyle’s fury at being brought over to ostensibly pursue Frog One (Fernando Rey, reprising his role as drug kingpin Alain Charnier), only to realize he’s being used as bait to lure the criminal into position to be grabbed by the local police force.

But Frankenheimer and screenwriters Alexander Jacobs, Robert Dillon and Laurie Dillon, doggedly, some might even say perversely refuse to follow in Friedkin’s footsteps. FCII is mapped out and directed as if the location (shot evocatively by Claude Renoir) seeped into their bones— it feels more like an arty policier that might have been made by any number of French directors of the time, its concerns much more in locating the core of Doyle’s blackened heart than in replicating the gritty, nihilistic thrills of Friedkin’s movie. One of the true strengths of FCII is how it conveys Doyle’s sense of abandonment, his lack of any real French connection, how he feels adrift in a culture, and more precisely a policing culture, that he doesn’t understand or respect— to that end, the movie provides no subtitles for its extensive French dialogue; like Doyle, the audience is left to fend for itself and extract meaning from context, observation and multiple conversations that lead nowhere.

Hackman may have won his first Oscar for the original film, but this is the far more rich, interesting, compelling performance. The actor courts our empathy at being lost in a language and society he doesn’t comprehend, but he’s no less blusteringly self-righteous for that; he makes a crude art of alienation, because he can’t allow himself to believe that any other method than his own could possibly be effective. Beyond all that, however, the filmmakers allow Hackman to dominate the center of the film in an entirely unexpected way— about 45 minutes in, Doyle is nabbed by Charnier’s thugs and, in an attempt to rid themselves of their American albatross, they string him out on the heroin they’re trafficking and then, when he’s entirely dependent, toss him back into the street. What follows is a long, harrowing, and strangely moving section in which Doyle, with the help of the French detective (Bernard Fresson) he refers to more as “Asshole” than by his actual name, agonizes through narcotic withdrawal on his way back toward the world and his now-elevated fury over Charnier and the way he has been used to tease the kingpin out into the open.

Perversely, or perhaps daringly, Frankenheimer and company have structured this section of the movie to be their stand-in for the prolonged car chase which is probably one of the only things people remember from the first movie. It is the film’s raison d’etre, its meaning, the polluted blood coursing through FCII, and it alters the perspective of the entire enterprise, including Doyle’s own sense of outrage and refusal to heed any precaution or safety in seeing his own personal mission to its end. It’s a gutsy, not entirely rational response to the mission of following up a well-respected Oscar-winning thriller, which is in its way, like Doyle’s, its own personal mission, and it turns what could have been a rote regurgitation designed to sell popcorn into something akin to a living, breathing creation, something made to respond to the world instead of just make furious noise within it.

FCII ends on a more definitive note than its closure-denying predecessor, but even in that definition Frankenheimer finds room to undercut any true sense that Doyle has finally completed his task. With an abrupt cut to end credits just before we can process the resolution we seem to have witnessed, we get Doyle’s shot at some measure of release, of payback, alongside the simultaneous realization after the cut that things are still moving on the water, that we can never really be sure if the prey is down or simply delayed in the game.

At a time when a tidal wave trend toward commodifying sequels was only just beginning, French Connection II, in a way perhaps more modest but spiritually akin to Coppola’s work in expanding the tale of the Corleone family the previous year, proved that it is possible to honor origins by mining character more than simply committing a hollow act of imitation. It may not be particularly well remembered in the shadow of its 1971 predecessor, but it should be.


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