[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
I liked The French Connection a lot in 1971, but I’m rather afraid to look at it again because I think I remember most of what’s there. Not that I don’t remember many other films vividly, films I’ve no doubt I can revisit any number of times and find them and me enriched every time. But there’s something about the feel of the first French Connection, the strategy of the film as a film, that makes me suspect I’ve savored most of what it had to offer—and that was no meager portion—during my two first-run visits. French Connection II isn’t as functionally perfect as its predecessor, but I suspect—stress, again, suspect—that its interstices leave contemplative room I might occupy again with profit. Put it another way: French Connection (I) struck me as a brilliant package film, a producer’s picture in which director, screenwriter, cameraman, editor, et al. were hitting their marks with breathtaking precision and enough originality that cries of “Manipulation!” seemed silly—indeed, ungrateful. FC-II, sequel or no, comes off as more of a felt work, and what I make contact with through it is a director.
On the face of it, in both films one makes palpable contact with an actor and a character. Gene Hackman and Popeye Doyle (and Hackman’s and Roy Scheider’s performances are the factors of FC(I) I’ve no doubt would repay and richen a revisit). While William Friedkin put us in touch with Popeye’s dynamism, his anger and frustration, The Exorcist offers plenty of evidence that he couldn’t have come near Frankenheimer’s responsiveness to, and comprehension of, Popeye’s agony in the new film. In the past Frankenheimer has wrought near-miracles with Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate), Rock Hudson (Seconds), Burt Lancaster (The Gypsy Moths), Omar Sharif (The Horsemen), and a miscast Gregory Peck (I Walk the Line), as well as actors less needful of miracle work, like John Randolph (Seconds), Allen Bates (The Fixer), and Scott Wilson (Gypsy Moths)—memorable realizations all of strongly masculine, profoundly troubled men on the edge of obliteration (by brainwashing, soul-stealing, conformity, modernity, political oppression, physical mutilation, whatever). In FC-II Popeye comes to Marseilles in pursuit of “Frog One” (equally fictitiously, if less colorfully, identified as Alain Charnier, and played once more by Fernando Rey).
The modern age and the modern thriller being what they are, his mission is more devious than he can know: rather than finding Charnier, he’s expected to be found by Charnier, who might break cover in the act of trying to knock off “the one man he hopes never to see again.” Popeye shakes the surveillance of the solicitous but not especially fond French police, and is kidnapped within mere yards and seconds. I’m doing the prospective viewer no great disservice in revealing this because FC–II is more a matter of humane experience than collected set-pieces, and Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Popeye’s torment is superb: Charnier doesn’t lay a hand on his enemy, just orders him shot full of heroin and eventually dumped back on the French cops with what ought to be a lethal overdose in his veins. There’s a terrific scene—part exquisite, part excruciating, with the parts pretty well overlaid and intermingled—wherein a blissfully stoned Doyle is comforted and then covertly ripped off by a superannuated English gentlewoman whose withered arm is purple with needle patterns. That’s while still in captivity. Freedom is worse, as the police officer Popeye customarily addresses as Asshole (Bernard Fresson in a most satisfying job) forces him to go cold turkey in secrecy (to protect him from becoming known as a “junkie cop”). The action sequences of French Connection II are well managed (a happily far cry from the director’s previous work in 99&44/100% Dead), but the grueling passage on Popeye’s addiction and withdrawal provides it with a painfully pounding heart the earlier film couldn’t lay claim to. They make the final chase the most deeply, desperately committed of a diptych rife with fine chases—a chase that ends as the film does, without a moment in which to breathe easily, but with a period so clean and satisfying that we are startled to realize again, as we have been startled to realize previously in his uneven career, what a classical filmmaker John Frankenheimer is, at heart.
FRENCH CONNECTION II
Direction: John Frankenheimer. Screenplay: Alexander Jacobs and Robert & Laurie Dillon, after a story by Robert & Laurie Dillon (based on characters created in The French Connection). Cinematography: Claude Renoir. Music: Don Ellis.
The Players: Gene Hackman, Bernard Fresson, Fernando Rey, Philippe Léotard, Cathleen Nesbitt.
Copyright © 1975 Richard T. Jameson