Controversy or not, the picture quality just isn't there.

James Plath's picture

In the time it took me to get a firmware upgrade so my Samsung could handle the newest batch of discs from Java-happy Fox, quite a firestorm erupted over the release of "The French Connection" Blu-ray. Though director William Friedkin says in an introduction to the film that this Blu-ray is the best version available, the film's cinematographer, Owen Roizman, gave an interview in which he was obviously bitter he wasn't consulted, saying he was "appalled" by the way it looks. "This is not the film that I shot, and I certainly wanted to wash my hands of anything to do with that Blu-ray transfer. . . . To me, it's atrocious."

1971 was a long time ago, and so I can't tell you how the film originally looked, and I'm not about to tell you who's right in this controversy, but I have my suspicions. And I will say that as a Blu-ray "The French Connection" is a disappointment (more on that later, in the "video" section).

That's too bad, because we're talking about a cop classic--a Best Picture Oscar-winner that also snagged statues for Gene Hackman (Best Actor), Friedkin (Best Director), Gerald B. Greenberg (Best Film Editing), and Ernest Tidyman (Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium). Roizman was nominated, but lost out to Oswald Morris ("Fiddler on the Roof").

All right, Popeye's here. Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!

As "Popeye" Doyle, Hackman is the quintessential bad cop, a New York City narcotics squad detective who routinely rousts patrons at bars, demeans them, and makes no bones about his racism or his desire to crack a few heads along the way. When he chases a man with his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), and the two of them catch up to the guy after he stumbles on the ground, the first thing Popeye does is kick him. Russo too, though he has less of a hair-trigger fuse and generally seems more reasonable.

If you like "Eastern Promises," you'll like this catalog title, because it paints the same wide picture of illegal drug operations and cops who try to nail them. And if you like the old Steve McQueen classic "Bullitt" because of that classic car chase on (and above) the streets of San Francisco, you'll appreciate this film's famous chase scene involving Doyle in a car weaving through traffic to catch up with a commuter train--a chase that gets even more frenetic when the train's driver is killed and commuters have no idea that the train is running itself.

Filmed in Marseille and New York, "The French Connection" was a fast-paced film when it first came out, and though it seems slower now, there's still steady movement. Doyle is like a nervous tiger on the prowl, one big itch looking for something to scratch, and Hackman delivers one of the best performances of his career. Scheider was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but this is so the "Popeye Show" that he really doesn't have as much to do besides play the foil to a man who seems to have more in common with Herman Melville's Captain Ahab than anyone you'd recognize in law enforcement. His white whale is a sophisticated Frenchman named Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the apparent kingpin of he Marseille operation that's one of the biggest suppliers of drugs to North America. Hackman gets wind of a big shipment of top-of-the-line heroin--worth some $32 million--and he and his partner pull out all the stops to try to make the bust. Popeye and Buddy watch the Frenchmen, and the Frenchmen keep tabs on the cops, at one point deciding they'd better get rid of them. It doesn't help that their buyer, Salvatore Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), is getting nervous. And of course there's ultimately a big confrontation that settles everything.

By today's standards, the plot is fairly simple, though the iceberg/Titanic convergence technique of showing the bad guys in France first and then the "good" guys in America trying to catch them certainly makes it seem more interesting. It's a gritty police drama that made Hackman a star, and deservedly so. His performance is dynamic, and all the more manic because of the contrast that emerges between the more erudite and suave criminals he's trying to catch. Doyle is as blue-collar and unrefined as they come, and it's the characters in "The French Connection" as much as the action that command our attention. Even close to 40 years later, it's still a powerful film, though some elements seem dated.

When I first watched "The French Connection" Blu-ray I thought, geez, and I had to get a firmware upgrade to watch this? I'm guessing there was always a level of grain in this film, to underscore the gritty content and tone, but the amount of grain for a Blu-ray is ridiculous. But the real problem with "The French Connection" on Blu-ray is its inconsistency. There's no rhyme or reason for why some interiors are excessively grainy and others come closer to the sharpness and detail we're used to seeing in Blu-ray, and the same with exteriors. Just when you think you've spotted a pattern, a scene pops up to make a fool of you. It's like trying to watch a TV show with the old rabbit ears antenna and someone is screwing with the antenna and taking a break every now and then so you realize what kind of picture quality you're missing when the snow flurries stop. Some of the scenes have washes of color over them that add a blurred element as well. The best scenes were shot in Marseille, with greater clarity and truer-looking colors than we get in the New York scenes. I understand that they're supposed to look gritty, but this fade-in, fade-out graininess really gets annoying. I'd rather have it be consistently gritty than vacillating all over the place. The colors don't look natural at all. Is it the transfer? The master? Bill Friedkin's tinkering? (Probably--he says, after all, that he tried to tone-down the colors to make them more compatible with the docudrama look he was going for!) Who knows. I just know that this AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is nothing to applaud. Compared to other catalog titles, even, this isn't a good-looking Blu-ray. Visually, it's a mess.

"The French Connection" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

The audio is better, but it's not what I'd call a dynamic track. There's a flatness to the timbre that shows up especially with high treble notes, and the bass really doesn't have much resonance--nor do the rear speakers get into it as much as you'd think. The original mono is included, along with audio options in English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, an English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround tracks. Better, but still no showpiece for Blu-ray enthusiasts. Subtitles are in English, Spanish, French, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

Two commentaries are carried over from the DVD: one featuring Friedkin (in which he talks about the actors and the action, mostly, with precious few insights into the filmmaking process) and the other featuring Hackman and Scheider, who were recorded individually and then spliced in at appropriate places. Rather than integrate their remarks, the producers opted to mostly focus on Hackman and then Scheider. A third viewing option is a Blu-ray addition, a trivia track that covers some of the same territory as the bonus features and can be watched separately or in concert with one of the commentary tracks.

Two vintage TV documentaries of approximately an hour are included as well, more carry-overs from the DVD. One is a BBC production that gives a good overview of the real case that inspired the movie, and the other is "Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of the French Connection," which features real detective Sonny Grosso talking about the case that the movie was based upon. Rounding out the DVD holdovers are a handful of deleted scenes with intro by Friedkin--nothing special, and the outtakes are in even worse shape than the movie.

As for Blu-ray exclusives, there's a brief intro by Friedkin defending the new color timing, and a 13-minute featurette on "Color Timing The French Connection" where he walks viewers through the process of how he changed the film to match his original vision. Two music-related features are also included: the isolated score by Don Ellis, and "Cop Jazz," a 10-minute feature on the composer's score. As far as I'm concerned, the best new features are a 20-minute conversation that Friedkin has with Grosso (though it does overlap some with the feature) and "Anatomy of a Chase," another 20-minute job that has Friedkin and producer Phil D'Antoni retracing the chase scene and talking about how they storyboarded it meticulously and shot it in real traffic. This Blu-ray is also D-Box Motion enabled.

Bottom Line:
If you have the DVD of "The French Connection," there probably isn't much incentive to add the Blu-ray to your collection. The Blu-added bonus features are nice, but not so wonderful as to make this a must-have. And controversy or not, the picture quality just isn't there.


Film Value