Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: The French Connection (dir by William Friedkin)


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Earlier today, thanks to Netflix, I watched the 1971 best picture winner, The French Connection.

Based on a true incident, The French Connection is the story of two NYPD detectives, the reasonable and serious Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) and his far more hyperactive partner, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman).  When we first see them, Doyle is dressed as Santa Claus and they’re both chasing a drug dealer through the streets of New York.  When they eventually catch up with the dealer, Russo plays good cop while Doyle plays batshit insane cop.  That’s a pattern that plays out repeatedly over the course of the film.  Russo suggests caution.  Doyle blindly fires his gun into the shadows.  Russo is sober.  Doyle is frequently drunk.  Russo is careful with his words.  Doyle is a casual racist who never seems to stop talking.  The one thing that Russo and Doyle seem to have in common is that they’re both obsessed with catching criminals.

The French Connection is also the story of Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), a suave and always impeccably dressed French businessman.  Charnier has a plan to smuggle several millions of dollars of heroin into the United States by hiding it in a car that will be driven by an unsuspecting (and rather vacuous) French actor named Henri Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale).  Working with Charnier is a low-level mafia associate named Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and a lawyer named Joel Weinstock (Harold Gray).

(Incidentally, Weinstock’s chemist is played by an actor named Patrick McDermott, who also played Susan Sarandon’s abusive hippie boyfriend in Joe.  The French Connection was McDermott’s third film and also his last.  I point this out because McDermott totally steals his one scene in The French Connection.  When one considers both his performance here and his work in Joe, it’s strange and unfortunate that McDermott’s cinematic career ended after just three films.  According to a comment left on the imdb, he later ran a health food store in Nebraska.)

When Doyle and Russo just happen to spy Sal hanging out with a group of mobsters at a local club, they decide (mostly on a whim) to investigate what Sal’s up to.  They notice that Sal drives a car that he shouldn’t be able to afford.  Will they discover how Sal is making his money and will they be able to stop Charnier from smuggling his heroin into the United States?

Well…let’s just say that The French Connection was made in 1971.  That’s right, this is one of those films where everything is ambiguous.  Neither Russo nor Doyle are traditional heroes.  Neither one of them is foolish enough to believe that their actions will make a difference.  Instead, they seem to view it all as a game, with Doyle and Russo as the win-at-any-cost good guys and the French as the bad guys.  And, indeed, it’s interesting to note that, when the police do make their move against Charnier, it’s the people who work for him who suffer the worst punishments.

I have to admit that, as a civil libertarian, Doyle is the type of cop who should make my skin crawl.  He’s an obsessive bigot, the type who runs into the shadows with his gun drawn and blindly firing.  When I watched The French Connection, a part of me wanted to get offended and say, “It’s none of your business why Sal has an expensive car!”  But I didn’t.  In fact, I was rooting for Doyle the whole time.  The French Connection is probably one of the best cast films of all time.  Hackman gives such a good performance that, while you can’t overlook Doyle’s flaws, you can accept them.  Meanwhile, Rey is so sleazy and smug in the role of Charnier that you really don’t care about his rights.  You just want to see him taken down.

(That said, if I ever got hold of a time machine and went back to New York in 1971, I’d rather be arrested by Russo than Doyle.  Doyle seems like he’d be the type to grope while frisking.)

Seen today, it’s a bit odd to think of The French Connection as being a best picture winner.  It has nothing to do with the film’s quality.  The film’s performances remain strong.  William Friedkin’s documentary-style direction is still compelling and he makes the decay of 1970s New York oddly beautiful.  Instead, it’s the fact that The French Connection essentially tells a very simple story that, when seen today, feels very familiar.  It’s a cop film and it includes every single cliché that we’ve come to associate with cop films.  (Russo and Doyle even have a supervisor who yells at them for not doing things by the book.)  But, what you have to realize is that the majority of those clichés were invented by The French Connection. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then The French Connection is probably one of the most flattered film ever made.

And what better way to end this review than by sharing The French Connection‘s most influential scene?  In the scene below, Doyle chases a commuter train that happens to be carrying one of Charnier’s associates.

Apprecier le film!

Shattered Politics #31: The Godfather (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


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“I got something for your mother and Sonny and a tie for Freddy and Tom Hagen got the Reynolds Pen…” — Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) in The Godfather (1972)

It probably seems strange that when talking about The Godfather, a film that it is generally acknowledged as being one of the best and most influential of all time, I would start with an innocuous quote about getting Tom Hagen a pen.

(And it better have been a hell of a pen because, judging from the scene where Sollozzo stops him in the street, it looked like Tom was going all out as far as gifts were concerned…)

After all, The Godfather is a film that is full of memorable quotes.  “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”  “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  “It’s strictly business.”  “I believe in America….”  “That’s my family, Kay.  That’s not me.”

But I went with the quote about the Reynolds pen because, quite frankly, I find an excuse to repeat it every Christmas.  Every holiday season, whenever I hear friends or family talking about presents, I remind them that Tom Hagen is getting the Reynolds pen.  Doubt me?  Check out these tweets from the past!

[tweet https://twitter.com/LisaMarieBowman/status/411891527837687810  ]

[tweet https://twitter.com/LisaMarieBowman/status/280387983444697088 ]

That’s how much I love The Godfather.  I love it so much that I even find myself quoting the lines that don’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things.  I love the film so much that I once even wrote an entire post about who could have been cast in The Godfather if, for whatever reason, Brando, Pacino, Duvall, et al. had been unavailable.  And I know that I’m not alone in that love.

But all that love also makes The Godfather a difficult film to review.  What do you say about a film that everyone already knows is great?

Do you praise it by saying that Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Marlon Brando, John Cazale, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Alex Rocco, and Talia Shire all gave excellent performances?  You can do that but everyone already knows that.

Do you talk about how well director Francis Ford Coppola told this operatic, sprawling story of crime, family, and politics?  You can do that but everyone already knows that.

Maybe you can talk about how beautiful Gordon Willis’s dark and shadowy cinematography looks, regardless of whether you’re seeing it in a theater or on TV.  Because it certainly does but everyone knows that.

Maybe you can mention the haunting beauty of Nina Rota’s score but again…

Well, you get the idea.

Now, if you somehow have never seen the film before, allow me to try to tell you what happens in The Godfather.  I say try because The Godfather is a true epic.  Because it’s also an intimate family drama and features such a dominating lead performance from Al Pacino, it’s sometimes to easy to forget just how much is actually going on in The Godfather.

The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone Family.  Patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) has done very well for himself in America, making himself into a rich and influential man.  Of course, Vito is also known as both Don Corleone and the Godfather and he’s made his fortune through less-than-legal means.  He may be rich and he may be influential but when his daughter gets married, the FBI shows up outside the reception and takes pictures of all the cars in the parking lot.  Vito Corleone knows judges and congressmen but none of them are willing to be seen in public with him.  Vito is the establishment that nobody wants to acknowledge and sometimes, this very powerful man wonders if there will ever be a “Governor Corleone” or a “Senator Corleone.”

Vito is the proud father of three children and the adopted father of one more.  His oldest son, and probable successor, is Sonny (James Caan).  Sonny, however, has a temper and absolutely no impulse control.  While his wife is bragging about him to the other women at the wedding, Sonny is upstairs screwing a bridesmaid.  When the enemies of the Corleone Family declare war, Sonny declares war back and forgets the first rule of organized crime: “It’s not personal.  It’s strictly business.”

After Sonny, there’s Fredo (John Cazale).  Poor, pathetic Fredo.  In many ways, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Fredo.  He’s the one who ends up getting exiled to Vegas, where he lives under the protection of the crude Moe Greene (Alex Rocco).  One of the film’s best moments is when a bejeweled Fredo shows up at a Vegas hotel with an entourage of prostitutes and other hangers-on.  In these scenes, Fred is trying so hard but when you take one look at his shifty eyes, it’s obvious that he’s still the same guy who we first saw stumbling around drunk at his sister’s wedding.

(And, of course, it’s impossible to watch Fredo in this film without thinking about both what will happen to the character in the Godfather, Part II and how John Cazale, who brought the character to such vibrant life, would die just 6 years later.)

As a female, daughter Connie (Talia Shire) is — for the first film, at least — excluded from the family business.  Instead, she marries Sonny’s friend Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo).  And, to put it gently, it’s not a match made in heaven.

And finally, there’s Michael (Al Pacino).  Michael is the son who, at the start of the film, declares that he wants nothing to do with the family business.  He’s the one who wants to break with family tradition by marrying Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), who is most definitely not Italian.  He’s the one who was decorated in World War II and who comes to his sister’s wedding still dressed in his uniform.  (In the second Godfather film, we learn that Vito thought Michael was foolish to join the army, which makes it all the more clear that, by wearing the uniform to the wedding, Michael is attempting to declare his own identity outside of the family.)  To paraphrase the third Godfather film, Michael is the one who says he wants to get out but who keeps getting dragged back in.

And finally, the adopted son is Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).  Tom is the Don’s lawyer and one reason why Tom is one of my favorite characters is because, behind his usual stone-faced facade, Tom is actually very snarky.  He just hides it well.

Early on, we get a hint that Tom is more amused than he lets on when he has dinner with the crude Jack Woltz (John Marley), a film producer who doesn’t want to use Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) in a movie  When Woltz shouts insults at him, Tom calmly finishes his dinner and thanks him for a lovely evening.  And he does it with just the hint of a little smirk and you can practically see him thinking, “Somebody’s going to wake up with a horse tomorrow….”

However, my favorite Tom Hagen moment comes when Kay, who is searching for Michael, drops by the family compound.  Tom greets her at the gate.  When Kay spots a car that’s riddled with bullet holes, she asks what happened.  Tom smiles and says, “Oh, that was an accident.  But luckily no one was hurt!”  Duvall delivers the line with just the right attitude of “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”  How can you not kind of love Tom after that?

And, of course, the film is full of other memorable characters, all of whom are scheming and plotting.  There’s Clemenza (Richard S. Catellano) and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), the two Corleone lieutenants who may or may not be plotting to betray the Don.  There’s fearsome Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), who spends an eternity practicing what he wants to say at Connie’s wedding and yet still manages to screw it up.  And, of course, there’s Sollozzo (Al Lettieri, playing a role originally offered to Franco Nero), the drug dealer who reacts angrily to Vito’s refusal to help him out.  Meanwhile, Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) is busy beating up young punks and Al Neri (Richard Bright) is gunning people down in front of the courthouse.  And, of course, there’s poor, innocent, ill-fated Appollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli)…

The Godfather is a great Italian-American epic, one that works as both a gangster film and a family drama.  Perhaps the genius of the Godfather trilogy is that the Corleone family serves as an ink blot in a cinematic rorschach test.  Audiences can look at them and see whatever they want.  If you want them and their crimes to serve as a metaphor for capitalism, you need only listen to Tom and Michael repeatedly state that it’s only business.  If you want to see them as heroic businessmen, just consider that their enemies essentially want to regulate the Corleones out of existence.  If you want the Corleones to serve as symbols of the patriarchy, you need only watch as the door to Michael’s office is shut in Kay’s face.  If you want to see the Corleones as heroes, you need only consider that they — and they alone — seem to operate with any sort of honorable criminal code.  (This, of course, would change over the course of the two sequels.)

And, if you’re trying to fit a review of The Godfather into a series about political films, you only have to consider that Vito is regularly spoken of as being a man who carries politicians around in his pocket.  We may not see any elected officials in the first Godfather film but their presence is felt.  Above all else, it’s Vito’s political influence that sets in motion all of the events that unfold over the course of the film.

The Godfather, of course, won the Oscar for best picture of 1972.  And while it’s rare that I openly agree with the Academy, I’m proud to say that this one time is a definite exception.