The French Connection

Compelling movies aren’t ones you like or even really like. Something happens when you cross paths with one. You must watch it. You can say to yourself, as a friend mentioned to me today about watching Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) the night before, I’ll just watch the first segment or up to a certain part, only to find yourself two or three hours later watching the end credits until the picture goes black. Your actions say much more than “this is a fantastic film.” The film is inside you, creating the desire to watch it again and again. Not every day, week, month. Or even a year. Unconsciously, you may even try to avoid it.

Flying back from Barcelona, last year, the back of the seats had movies available. Hundreds to choose from. But I declined the ear piece, thinking I could get some sleep on the flight. Instead, I started watching the films of the passenger in the aisle before mine, one seat over to the left. A near perfect view.

He started with the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! (2016), which I had seen twice at the theater. I kept track of the action, recalling some of the dialogue that I couldn’t hear now. The film held up well. The Coens already had made a few films that I can’t stop watching: Blood Simple (1983), Miller’s Crossing (1990), The Big Lebowski (1998), and No Country for Old Men (2007). Hail Caesar! may have started burrowing into me.

Then the man chose his next feature, The French Connection (1971). I had rented it from Netflix, a few years before, and had seen it many times since watching it at a theater when it premiered. Over the years, I had fixated on several scenes, two accompanied by intense music (scored by Don Ellis).

  1. Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle tailing Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) through the streets. Cat and Mouse. Popeye loses sight of him. The street geography seems chaotic. Popeye removes his trench coat at one point and a minute later we see him wearing it again. Things move so fast you don’t care (as is the case with the next scene). The music intensifies as Charnier nearly escapes from Popeye. Then they head to the subway at Grand Central Station. They both enter a train car, but Charnier spots Popeye and gets off. They head to a juice stand. Popeye asks for a grape drink. The next train comes in. Charnier boards it. Hackman follows, entering one door down. Charnier steps out to get rid of trash. Popeye leaves and then quickly enters. The doors close. Charnier sticks out the umbrella handle and the doors open. He briefly steps out, as does Popeye. Then the Frenchman quickly backs in, the doors close, the train pulls away. With Chernier waving bye-bye to Popeye.

Popeye’s case against Chernier and Sal Boca, the local buyer of the cache of heroin, is in ruins. From his superior’s eyes, it was a thin case anyway. The federal agent, Molderig, is contemptuous of Popeye, due to a past operation that cost an agent’s life (foreshadowing Mulderig’s fate). In passing, I must mention that Popeye’s superior is played by Eddie Egan, the real-life Popeye. Another federal agent, played by Sonny Grosso, was Egan’s partner when the ‘French Connection’ case went down in 1961-62.

  1. Charnier, however, has tired of the police surveillance and orders his associate (Marcel Bozzuffi) to shoot Popeye while he returns to his apartment house. The job is botched. Popeye pursues him on foot to an elevated train station. They end up on opposite sides of the tracks. Popeye tries to get across but a train arrives and the assassin gets away. This action leads to one of the great chases in cinema history. Popeye goes to the street and commandeers a car and follows the train. After a couple near crashes, and nearly running over a woman with a baby carriage, the latter actually causing him to hit a barrier and royally screwing up the front hood, Popeye catches up to the train at the end of the line. Meanwhile, the assassin has shot several people on the train, the train driver has a heart attack and runs the train into the barrier, the people go flying, including our assassin, who loses his gun and is severely shaken. When he comes down the stairs, Popeye is waiting. He is told to surrender but he turns and is shot by Popeye. In the entire sequence, there was no accompanying music.

The stunt driver and choreographer of the chase was Bill Hickman, who played the lead federal agent, Mulderig. Four years earlier, Hickman was the driver chased by Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1967), in the most famous chase in movie history, which he also arranged. In the lesser known The Seven Ups (1973), he drove the car pursued by Roy Scheider, which went at high speed for a longer time than the two more famous chases. Hickman had a score of small acting roles: in Point Blank (1967), Lee Marvin put him out of commission on a rooftop; in Patton (1970), he was the General’s driver (alas, no chase after Rommel’s car); in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), he was a gun store owner.

  1. Mulderig figures largely in the last scene. The police pounce on Sal, his brother, Charnier and others after the drug deal is completed. The hoods are surrounded in a garage. Meanwhile, Charnier heads for a large, gutted building. Popeye follows into a large, dark, dank area. Water drips all around. After a minute, Cloudy enters and Popeye nearly shoots at him. He believes that he has Charnier trapped in a room. Don Ellis’ music heightens the tension, and it carries through to the very end. Popeye hears something and fires into the room. His partner checks the body and looks up at Popeye: “You shot Mulderig.” Popeye reloads his gun and, breathing heavily, proceeds to look further for Charnier. We hear shots ring out. Then blackout. We find out Charnier has escaped. Cloudy and Popeye have been transferred to another department. The music continues through the credits, which lasts another 30 to 45 seconds.

(Sidebar: I watched French Connection II (1975) at a theater in Manhattan at 96th and Broadway. The film ends with the likelihood of Charnier slipping through Popeye’s hands. Popeye runs along the dock area trying to catch Charnier who is fleeing on a schooner. Finally, Popeye aims, yells Charnier’s name, causing him to look over, and shoots. Charnier is dead. Blackout. The audience’s reaction: Boos. Frog no. 1 apparently had a large contingent of supporters, the drug-taking community.)

Well, I’m on the plane and watched the entire film, missing the sound track, unfortunately.

I may have highlighted those three scenes but, like all compelling films, every scene is good. No filler or lulls.

Three months later, I turn on TCM and happened on the scene at Grand Central Station. I watched to the end, in a heightened state of cinematic-causing pleasure.

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