William Friedkin started out as an art-house filmmaker in the mid-60s, and was inspired to make THE FRENCH CONNECTION after Howard Hawks expressed dislike for his work, telling him to “[M]ake a good chase. Make one better than anyone's done.” Coming out of art cinema, Friedkin had doubtless been exposed to European films, and the influence of the New Wave in France shows as a gritty realism typical of America, an influence manifesting itself in the style more and more films of the day were being made in as the America’s “new wave” took hold.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION is filmed typically of any realist film: in a documentary style, on location, with dark colours and a grainy quality to the film, using long tracking shots and hand-held cameras. These techniques are critical to the film’s greatest quality, its chase scenes, which feel wild, out-of-control. The most famous of all of them involves Gene Hackman (“Doyle”) following a subway train in his car. It feels absolutely chaotic: watching it, there is no sense that the driver is in any real control of his car, that he could die at any moment. Suddenly, we see a woman with her baby carriage, and in the instant before he veers away, it is certain that a horrible crime has been committed by this lunatic. He avoids her, crashing into some garbage as a result, but continuing the chase. At that moment, although the suspense of the rest of the chase is not broken, a weight has lifted: we now know that the director has been fooling us, tricking us into thinking that the character has no control. When he avoids the woman, Hackman reasserts himself, and since there is no worse that could be done in this chase, there are multiple small collisions. Friedkin has had us in the palm of his hand all the while, subtly manipulating us.
It is the combination of these two things what makes THE FRENCH CONNECTION one of the best action films I have ever seen: the cinematic elements of realism, and the director’s subtle and knowing manipulation of our perceptions to enhance suspense. They may not match philosophically, but in effect they can be seen to produce great works.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION won Best Picture; Friedkin, Best Director. Both of these awards make sense: THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a thrilling film that reflects its times and attitude in story and technique, and Friedkin directs it intelligently, and with great control.
What doesn’t make sense to me is Gene Hackman winning an award for Best Actor. Certainly the character is interesting, a (significantly) less extreme Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT (1992), and a prototype for what feels like every action movie character to follow, but the character is not really much more than any of the vast series of knock-offs: the film has hardly any dialogue, and what Hackman is usually expressing can be summarized as “angry.” This is not to criticize the role: it’s a good one, played well, but the character is not complex (despite being based on a real person), and the portrayal of it does not seem to deserve a prestigious award.