In 2009, a firestorm erupted over the release of "The French Connection" on Blu-ray. Though director William Friedkin said in an introduction to the film that the Blu-ray represented the best version available, cinematographer Owen Roizman gave an interview in which he expressed bitterness that he wasn't consulted, saying he was "appalled" by the way it looked. "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,” he said at the time.
Now, 1971 was a long time ago, so I can't tell you how the film originally looked, and I'm not about to tell you who was right in the controversy, but I had my suspicions—especially since this Filmmaker’s Signature Series now features the film as I remember it, with all its gaudy colors and consistent layers of grain, rather than the fade-in/fade-out grain and desaturated colors we got in the first Blu-ray release.
So Friedkin apparently saw the light, and now we do as well, because the picture is brighter than the faux documentary look Friedkin said he was deliberately going for in the first Blu-ray release.
That’s good news for fans, 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 the cops who try to nail the “perps.” 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 way slower now, there's still steady movement. Doyle is like a nervous tiger on the prowl, one big itch looking for a 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 do something about 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 simple and straightforward, 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 and the pacing a tad escargot at times.
In the last Blu-ray release there was no rhyme or reason for why some interiors were excessively grainy and others closer to the sharpness and detail we're used to seeing in Blu-ray; same with the exteriors. Just when you thought you’d spotted a pattern, a scene popped up to make a fool of you. Some of the scenes had washes of color over them that add a blurred element as well. Friedkin admitted to tinkering with the color, first taking the film down to black-and-white and then adding color so that it was more industrial-looking. Thankfully that’s not the case here. The colors seem closer to what I remember, the grain ever-present but at least consistent, and the cover notes confirm the “new HD transfer.”
"The French Connection" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. , transferred to a 50GB disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology. I saw not compression issues other than slight aliasing in some of the faster-paced scenes. But noise also appears intermittently in some of the larger negative spaces and backgrounds. But “The French Connection” probably looks as good as it’s going to for a catalog title from the ‘70s—an era not exactly known for its enduring color film stock.
The audio is also better than the first Blu-ray release, as you can tell already from the opening discordant score which blares in piercing clarity. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that doesn’t involve the rear speakers as much as contemporary releases, except for harrowing scenes. Sometimes I found the center channel muffled compared to ambient sounds channeling through the side front speakers, but that’s rectified by turning up the volume. Additional audio options are the original English Mono and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. The transfer was accomplished via a 34MBPS bit rate.
Two commentaries are carried over from the DVD and first Blu-ray: 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 ported over from the first Blu-ray release. It covers some of the same territory as the bonus features and can be watched separately or in concert with one of the commentary tracks.
Included is a standard-def 56-minute documentary from the first Blu-ray, "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.
Gone is the brief intro by Friedkin defending the new color timing, and the 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. Now, of course, one has to wonder whether the vision was a whim back in 2009.
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 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.
The "signature" bonus feature in this series is a full-color 26-page booklet with photos, basic information, and essays on the director, Hackman, Scheider, and Fernando Rey.
If you have the DVD or first Blu-ray of "The French Connection" and want the best copy available, it’s here now in the Filmmakers Signature Series. The picture quality is much improved.