High Octane Cinema: The French Connection (1971)
William Friedkin explores his own movies, like the South American jungle of Sorcerer. They are volatile, labyrinthine constructions, obsessed with contradictions and servicing seduction to those who fall prey. Think of Pazuzu in The Exorcist or Joe Cooper in Killer Joe; they thrive in the endless madness of a tangled, vined environment, both modern and dilapidated, functional and dysfunctional. And they feed off desperate souls, forever confined in certain emotional/economic states to an overpowering habitat structured for failure and pain. Richard Chance in To Live and Die in L.A. and Jackie Scanlon in Sorcerer are such figures of spirit, seeking catharsis or satisfaction in a world systemically deprived of it. The individuals populating Friedkin’s filmography are frequently found maneuvering in search of their end goal, featuring decisions leading into side-streets of paranoiac terror and clumsy, unnecessary violence.
The French Connection, a film which won Friedkin an Academy Award for Best Director, finds Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle on a ceaseless trek, endlessly rising and reaching out, always missing the height and toppling down towards concrete. Its docu-realism intensifies the entrapment of the detectives – an occupation always needed, always running – in the world as well as the slinky movements of the pursued. The 1971 film lets a variety of personalities loose in their roles, and Friedkin (as well as the audience) observes as they clash, while their surroundings manipulate the nature of their attributes, decisions, destinies. Its stage is 70s New York City in its winter grime and glory: numerous dead-ends, intertwining levels, methodical side-eyes leading to full-blown sprints within elevated trains. The grit drills practicality into each motion, addressing faux-documentary head-on by showcasing accurate representations of crime within a societal maze; as confusing as it is maddening, vast, haunted and cold.
‘Popeye’ Doyle, who infamously nailed a junkie for “picking your feet in Poughkeepsie,” is aware of this reality he is seeped inside, dripping down the cracks in frivolous chase. “Never trust anyone!” he states, after rolling racial expletives off his tongue. He trusts himself and the view he sees, the action discovered along the job, the voids which his suspects float into like unknowingly commanding bosses of the capitalistically damned. Obstacles are just that, a part of a world which Popeye accepts even though he is always on the outside looking in, cracking the glass of the underworld via more radical, morally ambiguous methods.
The main example is the film’s center-piece car chase; an exhilarating, tactile exploration of obstacles and levels, increasing suspense and tension. Known as one of the greatest vehicular action sequences in the history of the cinema, Friedkin’s direction remains exemplary and flawless, even when one of the crashes was unplanned and necessary permits were not used. It is *dangerous*, mostly because it truly was, but the velocity found isn’t only due to its crisp cutting and sustained build-up. The scene utilizes ‘cat-and-mouse’ as a stage-setter for two individuals – one detective, one suspect – to showcase their knowledge of the city they’re placed in, and how their own distinct talents lead to the chosen fate of such a society. Through sections where “they illegally continued the chase into sections with no traffic control, where they had to evade real traffic and pedestrians,” real, potent danger is attained, a product of Popeye’s one-track-mind obscuring judgment and safety for his surroundings. The speed of the two levels edited together allows for both sides to unravel into their purest states, and it is terrifying, a result of their environment creating aliens disconnecting from the supposed ‘tedium’ of daily life.
Friedkin’s view is cynical in that it is, at least from The French Connection, better to be comfortable in the trappings which you’re born into than to break out in defiance or discomfort, because it only leads to death. An unwinnable battle to destroy one another, rushing to make their society more oblivious to the pointlessness of it all. What’s worse? Knowing you’re fucked in the world or ignoring it all together? Friedkin argues it’s the former, but in the flight of running and gunning the acceleration, a hitman booking it after a failed mission and a detective angry at a close-call with death, the result is beautiful. Watching a Friedkin car chase has no equal in terms of spatial construction and acknowledgment of its characters. Not only do you see and understand the situation, the stakes, the twists and turns of cars rushing towards their goal. You also see these people as what they can be, and how the environment shakes its own snow globe up to watch them squirm.