[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
The main strength of William Friedkin’s The French Connection lay in the driving pace of its montage, which assembled the film’s fragmentary narrative into a single, compelling forward movement toward the climax and the inevitable results of Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s recklessness, revealed in the cryptic final title. John Frankenheimer has, by contrast, always leaned heaviest on frame composition to express his vision, and as a result his new film is a French Connection of quite a different cut.
For one thing, French Connection II is sheer fiction where its parent film was fictionalized fact: Doyle, in reality suspended from the New York Police force for his careless handling of the seizure of history’s largest heroin haul, is miraculously restored to his former rank and sent to Marseilles, ostensibly as an “observer,” to advise the French police in their pursuit of Alain Charnier, the first film’s elusive “Frog One.” For his own part, Frankenheimer appears less interested in story or character than in exploring some variations on his favorite visual motif: man and machine, the contrasting shapes and attitudes of humanity and technology. From the very first shot of tiny people clambering about huge ships (recalling the aircraft carrier composition from Seven Days in May and similar camera treatments of the title machine of The Train), the frame is cut by huge chains, nets, block and tackle, barred doors; bare toilets and sinks dominate most of the interiors; raw opium is smuggled into Marseilles attached to the hull of a cargo ship, and removed by workmen with welding torches in dry dock; there is an elaborately mounted shootout amid the machinery on the wharf: a mechanical door becomes a weapon with which a fleeing dope smuggler is challenged by the French Police; Doyle escapes two men tailing him by clinging to the side of an enormous garbage truck.
Frankenheimer’s concern with this sort of tension within the frame would seem to promise some pretty good action sequences—and, now and again, it does. But just as frequently the approach fails. In the climactic gun battle in the dry dock, for example, Doyle and his French comrade-in-arms Henri Bartelemy battle both Charnier’s men and the violent rush of tons of water from 16 spillways pouring in on top of them; but the scene fails to generate suspense or excitement because Frankenheimer has not cared enough about the story to establish where Doyle and Bartelemy are in relation to the actual spillways and the antagonistic gunmen. Yet Frankenheimer’s fascination with the mechanical aspects of human procedures provides some of the film’s most arresting sequences as well: Doyle loading his gun; Charnier’s men preparing and administering the doses of heroin to which they addict Doyle in order to ensure his cooperation in answering their questions; the use of machinery by a doctor and several technicians to save Doyle’s life when he is given an overdose and dumped on the street; the agonizing and very human process of cold turkey withdrawal for Doyle: the complex procedure of refining raw opium into heroin and packing it into bouillabaisse cans for transport to New York; and, overall, a depiction of the mechanics of police procedure reminiscent—in content if not in style—of the German police films of Fritz Lang.
In providing for Doyle’s addiction and withdrawal (superbly played by Gene Hackman as Doyle, with excellent support from Bernard Fresson as Bartelemy), the film’s scenarists have embellished the no-nonsense police action locus of The French Connection with something like a message. The idea seems to be to guarantee audience sympathy with Doyle, the reckless, amoral cop, to bring home the reality of what he is fighting by depicting the horror of what heroin is and does. Yet just as interesting—and far less sympathetic to Doyle—is the presence throughout the film of a sort of Vietnam consciousness. Doyle is a prime candidate for Ugly Americanhood: he has not the slightest interest in speaking the language or understanding the customs of France, insists on the gastronomic preeminence of hamburgers and Hershey bars, remarks with something less than diplomacy that “I’d rather be a lamppost in New York than the President of France,” persists in the use of terms like “frog” and the more universal if less flattering “asshole,” brutalizes police prisoners, manages to get as many good guys as bad guys killed off, and even methodically burns down a French hote1. He and Bartelemy come to understand each other, despite several instances of failed communication (including an amusing and touching scene in which Doyle attempts to tell Bartelemy about Whitey Ford: “He was a southpaw … a lefty.” “You mean a Communist?”); but, though Doyle saves Bartelemy’s life when the dry dock is flooded, the two men are destined never to act as one in matters of police procedure.
Doyle persists in his unorthodox procedures, and ends up entirely alone—in the film’s breathtaking final sequence—pushing himself to lung-bursting exhaustion as he chases on foot first a bus, then a boat on which Charnier seeks to make good his escape. The finale culminates the tiny-men-big-boats motif that opened the film; and, just as the images are generally doing something different from the plot, so one suspects that Frankenheimer is getting at something quite different from the scenarists’ ideas. For this reason, if none other, French Connection II ultimately fails from trying to be too many things at once. Though far better than Frankenheimer’s last few films, French Connection II is a sequel altogether inferior to the film that inspired it, and an extension of personal vision far less controlled than the more integrated, less compromising work of Frankenheimer’s finest period, from The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to Seconds (1966).
FRENCH CONNECTION II
Direction: John Frankenheimer. Screenplay: Alexander Jacobs and Robert & Laurie Dillon, after a story by the Dillons (based on characters created in The French Connection). Cinematography: Claude Renoir. Editing: Tom Rolf. Music: Don Ellis. Production: Robert L. Rosen.
The Players: Gene Hackman, Bernard Fresson, Fernando Rey, Philippe Léotard, Charles Millot, Cathleen Nesbit, Ed Lauter.
Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow