1971 was an interesting year for movies. The first year of the seventh decade of the 1900s saw the likes of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, KLUTE, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, SHAFT, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and DIRTY HARRY all grace the silver screen. The film that came out smelling like roses, atop that veritable heap of cinematic classics was THE FRENCH CONNECTION, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture and 4 other golden boys that year. On the surface, watching the film for the first time I found myself questioning the validity of these honors. Then the final credits rolled and I realized I was an idiot.
Other than the equally brilliant BULLITT no one had ever seen cop films like the ones released in 1971. With DIRTY HARRY and THE FRENCH CONNECTION cops were shown as valiant and determined but also as flawed and driven sometimes to the point of fault. The badge adorned knights of the streets were shown as real human beings with real human emotions and real human character flaws. DIRTY HARRY did all this while masked with the iconic visage of one of the greatest purveyors of vigilante justice in the history of cinema but THE FRENCH CONNECTION made no such attempt to show it’s characters or their story through anything but the harsh prism of cold, hard reality.
What first caught me so off guard about THE FRENCH CONNECTION is how desperately simple it all plays. For the most part William Friedkin’s masterpiece bears more in common with an episode of Law and Order than say SERPICO or COLORS. Almost the entire movie focuses on one particular investigation led by two very determined cops. Very little is time is spent delving into their pasts or their private lives, likewise the case, while important to temporarily stopping the influx of drugs into the city bears very little significance in the grand scheme of things. What becomes crystal clear by the end of the movie though is that this is exactly the point.
The beauty of THE FRENCH CONNECTION is that it is not trying to tell an L.A. CONFIDENTIAL type story. Using the sparse cinematic language that film makers seemed to be so adept at during the 70’s Friedkin paints a sharp, concise, brutal picture of crime and justice and the men that dedicate their lives to trying to uphold a system that sadly often times doesn’t work the way it should in a world that more often than not doesn’t play fair. Within 100 minutes everyone in this film is able to tell a tale, touching on themes and ideas years ahead of their time, that to this day very few have been able to touch.
While I don’t know if THE FRENCH CONNECTION deserved to win Best Picture (Sorry but it was up against DIRTY HARRY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and trying to pick between the 3 is like trying to pick a favorite child) there can be no doubt that it deserves it’s place amongst the all time great film classics. It in one fail swoops displays a style of film making almost all but forgotten today, yet deals with ideas and themes decades before their time. One would be hard pressed to find a better constructed cinematic nugget and the fact that it contains one of the greatest car chases of all time doesn’t hurt either.