The Best Picture Project – The French Connection (1971)

Directed by William Friedkin

Screenplay by Ernest Tidyman, based upon the book by Robin Moore

Starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey

The Oscars have been known to follow the latest trends, gleeefully heaping awards on the latest flash-in-the-pan – those films or filmmakers that show promise, or even brilliance, but who never rise to the same level again.  The earliest of the bunch that comes to mind is Delbert Mann for directing Marty.  Like any next best thing he shot to the ultimate top of his profession, winning an Oscar for directing the film, only to fall immediately back to earth.  Even if he wasn’t exactly never heard from again, it seemed pretty close to it.

Of all the decades, the 70s were the worst at this.  After all, between 1970 and 1979, the Best Director Oscar was given out three times to men who’d never been nominated before or since their wins – Franklin Schaffner, John G. Avildsen and Michael Cimino.  And two other times the Award went to men who would only wind up with two total nominations in the category – William Friedkin and George Roy Hill – both of whom had their first and second nominations within five years of each another.  In Friedkin’s case, it was only one.

Perhaps the Oscar voters can be faulted at as being all-too-human, following the latest fads just like anybody else – after all, the 70s were the time of the Pet Rock and if that fad could catch on, why not Michael Cimino?

But even if that were true, how could it explain that the 70s were also the time when the Academy was most inclusive and that, while they were busy honoring the next-big-thing they were also recognizing more ‘foreign films’ and their directors, than ever before.  After all, the seventies saw two nominations each for two titans of world cinema, Fellini and Bergman, and one each for such varied a group as Jan Troell, Francois Truffaut, Lina Wertmuller, and Edouard Molinaro.

Clearly, if there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s that the Academy can be a little erratic and that maybe the value of an Oscar should be taken with a grain of salt.  But I digress.

The obvious connection all of this has to this entry of the Best Picture Project is that the winning picture of 1971 was directed by one such flash in the pan described above – William Friedkin.

In some ways it’s not fair to call Friedkin a flash in the pan.  After all, the man has had a 45 year career in films and TV, has had hits in pretty much every decade, and was never thought to be the hack that some of his fellow winners became.  Plus, the two films he was nominated as Best Director for are outright classics – The Exorcist is truly the scariest movie ever made.  Not to mention that another of his films, Sorcerer, is an underrated remake of Wages of Fear.

But part of me wants to stick to the flash in the pan status, given how rote so much of The French Connection is, even though I know the film being rote has less to do with itself than 40 years of intervening films that have ripped it off, for better or worse.  In essence, seeing it when I do unfairly harms it because I don’t get the visceral thrill the film delivered in 1971, I get 40 years of endless riffs that have made the film so familiar.

Taken on is own terms, The French Connection is a fine little film, and at approximately 100 minutes, it’s fairly modest in run time.  It’s so modest you can almost see it twice over in the run time of its fellow nominee Fiddler on the Roof.  Telling the story of two New York cops stumbling on a major drug deal, only to fail at the end and let the bad guys get away, it is slippery, tricky and really does provide a visceral thrill, fully summed up in its legendary car/train chase about one hour into the film.  On it’s own, a nice little film.  And even against its fellow nominees it’s not too shabby, even though 1971 has got to be one of the toughest Best Picture years ever, with Fiddler on the Roof, A Clockwork Orange and my personal favorite among them, The Last Picture Show all rating Best Picture noms.

Historically, though, The French Connection barely seems important to even be included in that group, looked at now as more a product of its time than something timeless.

But as much as I might be troubled that The French Connection won Best Picture, where I’m really ambivalent is about Gene Hackman’s Oscar.  It’s not that he gives a bad performance in the film, because it’s clearly a film that fails if he fails.  It’s just that his performance is more about toughness and yelling than real drama.  There’s no subtlety to it, not in the same way he made Little Bill in Unforgiven subtle in his menace, which makes me wonder if it’s really Oscar-worthy at all.

As An Aside

One thing that’s interesting about Friedkin is that just before watching The French Connection I read Ralph Rosenblum’s seminal book, When The Shooting Stops, The Cutting Begins – curiously, I read it on a semi-recommendation of Christine Vachon, who mentions it prominently in her book, A Killer Life.  One of the biggest plot points of the book, if a non-fiction book can have a plot point, concerns the early Friedkin film,  The Night They Raided Minsky’s.  From the description Rosenblum gives of the film, showing up and finding the intial construction of the film an absolute mess, he was convinced Friedkin was essentially a no-talent ass-clown who had no idea what he was doing.  It was only after nine months of his own laborious editing, while Friedkin was half the world away making another film, that the film was saved from itself.  The irony of course is that once the film was out, Friedkin got the plaudits while Rosenblum got nothing.

For the other winners and films left to see, click here.

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