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The French Connection: Five Star Collection

By the early 1970s, William Friedkin was a director of great promise. Getting one of his first breaks directing episodes of CBS-TV's "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," he later moved on to an early award-winning documentary, The People Versus Paul Crump, and the first major film about gay identity, 1970's The Boys in the Band. But with the arrival of the '70s, Friedkin was afraid he'd been pegged by the studios as an "art film" director, and that he'd never get his hands on an A-list project. In a 1970 lunch with Howard Hawks (as related in Peter Biskind's excellent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), the aging director admonished Friedkin for making a film like The Boys in the Band. "People don't want stories about somebody's problems or any of that psychological shit," he said. "What they want is action stories. Every time I make a film like that, with a lotta good guys against bad guys, it had a lotta success, if that matters to you." Friedkin was not necessarily drawn to Hawks (although he was dating his estranged daughter, Kitty), but he took the advice to heart. "I had this epiphany that what we (young directors) were doing wasn't making films to hang in the Lourve. We were making films to entertain people, and if they didn't do that first they didn't fulfill their primary purpose." If the Hawks/Friedkin meeting was a minor, almost forgettable one for the elder director, it changed everything for Friedkin — without it, he says, there never would have been The French Connection (1971), a picture that ranks among the most powerful of the New Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola, working in post-production on The Godfather, was so struck by seeing The French Connection for the first time that he reportedly lamented to an assistant editor, "I guess I failed. I took a popular, pulpy, salacious novel, and turned it into a bunch of guys sitting around in dark rooms talking."

Based on the book The French Connection by Robin Moore, and with a script by Ernest Tidyman, Friedkin's film adaptation concerns the true-life events of NYPD narcotics detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, who in the '60s made the largest heroin bust in U.S. history at the time, smashing an international operation that imported pure white junk from Eastern countries to New York City via the French port of Marseilles. Gene Hackman plays the temperamental Det. Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (based on Egan), who routinely collars low-life users with his partner Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider, based on Grosso), in the hopes of getting them to rat out their dealers. But when Popeye and Cloudy notice a table of big spenders at a local club one night, they decide to tail one of them, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), and soon realize he's trafficking something. After they manage to connect Boca to Manhattan drug-financier Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary), a wiretap reveals a major shipment that's due to arrive in a few days from France. But it's not hard for the French organizer, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), to learn he's being tailed by the NYPD, and as the narcos get closer to a bust, Charnier brings in an assassin — with Popeye in the crosshairs.

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Perhaps no higher praise can be given to a film than to say that it made such a lasting impression that virtually every subsequent film of its genre bears its stamp of influence. Friedkin was attached to The French Connection project by producer Philip D'Antoni specifically for his experience with documentaries. In the era of the New Hollywood that marked the late '60s and early '70s, with producers increasingly handing more and more control over to individual directors, it was decided that The French Connection would be a film unlike any seen before — it's regrettable, when seen today, that it seems almost too much like everything we've seen since. But its many imitators cannot lessen its importance, and while several actors were considered for the lead roles of Popeye and Cloudy, the decision to cast virtual unknowns Hackman and Scheider lended to the overall documentary-style tone. From there, Friedkin employs numerous low-cost, high-impact film techniques, including a lot of shaky hand-held camerawork and shooting essentially in natural light, in addition to the unmistakable New York locations in the depths of winter. Hackman's performance dominates the film from its opening moments — working undercover in a Santa Claus costume, he thrashes a junkie for info while Cloudy holds him back in a good-cop/bad-cop routine that's lost control. And from this introductory scene moviegoers in 1971 realized that this was not just another cop film, as The French Connection was the first time police officers were depicted routinely violating not just proper procedure, but suspects' rights, utilizing intimidation, threats, and physical violence to achieve street-level results that would never wind up on official reports. Of course, such images and stories fail to disturb us today as they did in the politically turbulent '70s, and it would be pretty hard to make a cop film or TV series nowadays without the protagonist bending the law at times, or the verité' camera-work (both "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" owe an enormous debt to Connection). But few films have matched Friedkin's cop masterpiece, and as car chases become longer, flashier, more intricate (and somewhat more boring), few can compare to Hackman's terrifying pursuit of an elevated train through the busy streets of Brooklyn, where the focus is not on the pyrotechnics, but instead the very real and immediate danger of driving 80 mph through a busy neighborhood. Like the shower scene in Psycho, once done, it can never really be imitated, or equaled.

Fox's two-disc The French Connection: Five-Star Collection offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a source-print that is grainy at times (by design), but unquestionably the best rendition to ever arrive on home video. This is not a film that's supposed to look great, but gritty, and Friedkin's intent is fully rendered here. Audio is available in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 track that improves on previous versions as well (which suffered from severe Foley exaggeration in looped elements), along with a Dolby 2.0 Surround track and French mono. Features on Disc One include a commentary track with Friedkin, a second scene-specific commentary with Hackman and Scheider, and the original theatrical trailer, while Disc Two offers the new documentary "Making the Connection: The Untold Stories," with comments from the film's principals, the BBC documentary "Poughkeepsie Shuffle," seven deleted scenes with comments from Friedkin, a still gallery, and additional trailers. Dual-DVD keep-case.

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