I first saw 'The French Connection' in the mid-'90s at a repertory theater as part of a double-bill with 'Chinatown'. Roman Polanski's period mystery was then and still remains a timeless masterpiece. At the time, William Friedkin's police thriller felt terribly dated, and seemed to me the vastly inferior of the two movies. Ironically, in the ensuing years, so many other cop movies and TV shows have co-opted the film's style and tone that 'The French Connection' no longer feels dated at all. If not for some of the fashions and the clunky old cars, the movie could comfortably be released to theaters today or form the basis for a long-running series on HBO or the FX network.
Of course, familiarity and imitation have dulled much of the impact of 'The French Connection'. In its day, the movie's bracing use of violence and language, and its depiction of morally-ambiguous cops whose working methods were just as dirty as the criminals they chased, were pretty shocking. The film was raw, urgent, and very much of-the-moment. Despite a frankly thin story, the movie was a sensational hit and won a bunch of Oscars, including the coveted Best Picture.
Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider star as Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo, two New York narcotics detectives who've wasted too many years shaking down nickel-and-dimers. Popeye's abusive behavior and flagrant racism are seen as assets to his job, and Russo isn't far behind. With little support from their superiors, the pair discover that a major drug shipment is coming in from Marseilles. Popeye and Cloudy believe that taking down the French kingpin behind the smuggling operation will be the big case that makes their careers. Thus they tail the man in order to ferret out his base of operations.
Although some of the specific details of the plot are a little confusing, that's really all there is to the story. They identify the man, they track him down, and they try to bust him. There isn't much complexity or character development. Popeye's a hot-headed, racist jerk at the beginning of the movie, and a hot-headed, racist jerk at the end. What makes the film so exhilarating is its style. Friedkin directs with a gritty freneticism. He uses handheld cameras, jagged editing, and a discordant score to create constant feelings of excitement and unease. In almost cinéma vérité fashion, long stretches go by without much dialogue. The film builds a strong, authentic sense of atmosphere in the seedy neighborhoods and bitterly cold New York winter. And then there's the justifiably-famous car chase, in which Popeye tries to outrun an elevated train. The scene has been endlessly imitated, parodied, and even outdone, but still packs quite a visceral punch.
Truth be told, 'The French Connection' is probably more notable for breaking the mold of previous police thrillers and setting a bold new precedent than it is for being a great piece of storytelling in its own right. In terms of dramatic content, the film has been bettered over the years by TV shows like 'The Wire' and 'The Shield', which adopted its stylistic techniques and explored that thin moral divide between cops and criminals in much greater depth. Still, there's no denying that 'The French Connection' was a landmark film, and deserves its place in cinematic history.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'The French Connection' to Blu-ray as a 2-disc set. Both discs are Java-enabled and extremely slow to load in a standalone Blu-ray player. Even the Sony Playstation 3 (usually one of the fastest-loading Blu-ray players) slows to a crawl with this one.
The movie's sequel 'French Connection II' has also been released on Blu-ray simultaneously in a separate edition.
The sad fact of the matter is that, while he was once a great filmmaker, William Friedkin lost his marbles sometime during the 1980s and never recovered. As further evidence of that, this Blu-ray edition presents us with a newly recolored version of 'The French Connection' that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the movie's original photography. William Friedkin personally supervised the transfer, and defends his decisions in the disc supplements.
The new color timing is so radically invasive that it sparked a war of words between Friedkin and the film's cinematographer Owen Roizman, who said of the Blu-ray, "I wasn't consulted. I was appalled by it. I don't know what Billy was thinking. It's not the film that I shot, and I certainly want to wash my hands of having had anything to do with this transfer, which I feel is atrocious." To which Friedkin then lashed out at Roizman in a lengthy interview where he barely stops short of calling the man incompetent. I recommend listening to that interview in its entirety. Despite his years of experience, Friedkin demonstrates a shocking ignorance of photography, film, video, and Blu-ray in particular. He seems to believe that all movies on Blu-ray are recolored the way this one was as a matter of course. He is gravely mistaken.
I'm not going to mince words about this. I side with Roizman. The new color scheme looks unnatural and doesn't suit the material at all. I'd like to support the right of a director to control the way his movie looks, but this is just ridiculous. Filmmakers are artists, but sometimes artists lose their perspective over the years and try to impose revisionist ideas that are not in the best interest of the original work (see also: Lucas, George). Even though Friedkin may not have removed or added any footage to the movie, his color changes are so severe that what we have on this Blu-ray shouldn't be called 'The French Connection' at all. It's a different movie now. This is 'The French Connection Redux'.
So what did he do, exactly? The recoloring process is explained in some depth in the disc's supplements. Essentially, after the original film negative was scanned for the video transfer, Friedkin felt that the colors were too intense and detracted from the "documentary-like" style he wanted. That sounds like a sensible enough complaint. You'd think that the logical solution would be to simply dial down the colors. Instead, Friedkin had the entire color palette digitally stripped from the movie, leaving him with black & white image. He then took the color layer, oversaturated it, defocused it, and bled it back in on top of the black & white layer. The director describes the new colors as "pastel." How giving the movie pastel colors is supposed to make it look more like a documentary, I cannot fathom. There's a profound disconnect between what Friedkin says that he wants and what he's actually doing.
The problems with this process are evident right in the movie's opening shot, a skyline view of Marseilles. There's a building on frame left. As a result of the recoloring, the side of the building is now the exact same shade as the sky, which makes the shot look like a bad matte painting with a huge gap down the middle. The other sides of the building are a different color entirely. You'd think the director might notice that.
The effect of all this is that 'The French Connection' now looks like one of those old black & white movies that Ted Turner colorized in the '80s. It's a cartoonish facsimile of the movie. The colors are filled with chroma noise and frequently bleed. Flesh tones often have a sickly purple hue for no good reason. Friedkin also jacked up the contrast while he was at it. Whites bloom and shadow detail is crushed. And because the color layer was defocused, that means that part of the image is literally out of focus. In the color timing featurette, Friedkin proudly demonstrates before-and-after comparisons of the original negative against his "corrected" version, and you can watch half the detail in the picture vanish as soon as he flips the switch. The combination of boosted contrast and defocusing also gives many parts of the image, especially facial features, a strange glow.
In other respects, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (presented in its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio) has detail that varies shot-to-shot from fair to downright awful. 'The French Connection' was always rough around the edges. In its original conception, the movie was meant to look drab and grainy. However, Friedkin currently claims that he now hates film grain, and boasts that his new process will clean it all up. That stands in stark contrast to how the disc actually looks. The picture is still grainy as hell, and all the digital manipulation gives the grain a nasty electronic texture that isn't film-like at all.
At its best, there are parts of the movie that don't look too distorted. After a while, it becomes possible to tune out the manipulations and try to enjoy the movie despite them. Unfortunately, time and again the colors are just so downright bizarre and distracting that it's impossible to concentrate on the story. Shame on William Friedkin for doing this to his movie. What was he thinking?
At least the Blu-ray sounds better than it looks. During its 1971 run, 'The French Connection' played with a monaural soundtrack. The Blu-ray provides the audio in three options, the primary being a new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix. Also included are a Dolby Digital 2.0 downmix from the 5.1 master, and the original mono mix in Dolby Digital 1.0.
As far as remixes go, the 5.1 track is fairly effective. The score has been opened up, and sounds like it may have been remastered from the original recording elements rather than just processed into fake stereo. The surround channels are used sparingly. The few directional pans are organically integrated without coming across too gimmicky. Individual sounds in the mix are clear and distinct. Gunshots have nice kick.
Of course, the soundtrack still suffers the burden of its age. Dialogue is sometimes muddy. ADR and foley work stand out as artificial. The musical score and many sound effects (during the car chase in particular) are shrill and screechy. Even so, the audio sounds pretty good overall.
Fox previously released 'The French Connection' on DVD in a Five-Star Collection DVD back in 2001. Almost all of the bonus features from that release have been carried over to the Blu-ray.
I can't blame Fox for this one. The studio wanted to do right by 'The French Connection'. They brought in the film's director to supervise a new video transfer exactly as he wanted it, and loaded up the Blu-ray with bonus features both old and new. This set should be a home run. Everything wrong with the video transfer is the fault of one and only one man: William Friedkin himself. He has desecrated a classic film. Worse, he's already confirmed that he plans to do the same to the Blu-ray editions of many of his older films, including 'The Exorcist'.
I wish I could recommend this Blu-ray. I'd really like to, but just can't. Honestly, as much as it pains me to say it, I'd rather watch the DVD edition.