French Connection, The (US - BD)
Gabe's eyes are popped by Popeye Doyle's high definition adventure...
After a hard day on the job, New York city super-detectives James ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider) take a break at the Copacabana, and witness a suspicious celebration by known drug runners. Doyle’s instincts get the better of him, and soon the team is running surveillance on the runners. When a mysterious French accent comes over the wire tap, the cop instincts are piqued again, and the chase is on.
When people talk about the ‘70s on film, there are three films that immediately jump into my mind—Sidney Lument’s Dog Day Afternoon, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and William Friedkin’s The French Connection. These films don’t encompass all of the era’s most lasting and popular styles, and don’t even come close to representing all the best of the era had to offer (where’s Dawn of the Dead, The Godfather, Star Wars, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc, etc), but they viscerally define the rough and tumble, post-documentary style that came into the American mainstream at the time. All three movies are perfect examples of the brand of punch-to-the-face realism modern filmmakers have been trying to rediscover for decades.
With the release of successful remakes of My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th, it appears that Texas Chainsaw Massacre inspired revisionism has seen its day in the sun, and that modern horror audience are moving towards the slightly more easygoing slashers of the 1980s. However, the continued popularity of Bourne Supremacy inspired action thrillers tells me that we aren’t done with the 1970 all together. The action films of my childhood (the 1980s and ‘90s) were defined by big-budget pyrotechnics and state of the art special effects. Despite a continued obsession with digital effects, since the turn of the millennium popular filmmakers have dabbled more in (simulated) low-tech action violence. One name consistently quoted by these filmmakers is The French Connection, to which Bourne Supremacy director Paul Greengrass virtually prays too in every one of his non-documentary features. But the influence can also be seen in subjectively opposed Sci-Fi action like Michael Bay’s Transformers.
But the film isn’t just bravado direction from a young director with something to prove (it’s interesting to note that Friedkin wouldn’t ever shoot anything this natural again in his career, even in his follow-up cop films like Cruising and Live and Let Die in L.A.), The French Connection also features a fantastic story, based on a fascinating real-life case, and three equally brilliant, but entirely different lead performances. The story, which is complex, is told at an almost alarming pace, even taking time for the centrepiece car chase, yet the audience learns everything they’ll ever need to know about the characters. There isn’t a millimetre of wasted film, which has helped to sustain the movie’s popularity for almost forty years.
First the good news: The French Connection works in HD. Some older films gain nothing from the upgrade, but this is not one of them. The renewed clarity of the image is breathtaking within the first scene (though not the first shot, which is a grainy zoom). Detail levels are generally realistic, without making the film appear artificially modern. The stock doesn’t lose any of its grit or grain to over-cleansing (there aren’t any major issues with artefacts, just minor flecks of dirt), but minus the noise issues of the standard definition DVD release, and plus some additional detail, I’m positive this is the closest most of us will come to seeing the film during its original run…had it not been for one little thing…
…Someone’s taken the effort to ‘correct’ some of the film’s colours. The early French scenes, and scenes taking place in the police headquarters are relatively unaffected, but night scenes, overcast outdoor scenes, and especially bar scenes, are definitely altered. Warm flesh tones, oranges, and browns, are desaturated, while all the neon lights are pushed, creating stronger blues and reds. The process kind of makes the film look like a Brian DePalma or Michael Mann release from the early ‘80s, which all is fine and good, but to my mind’s eye not The French Connection. I think French Connection, I think lots of grim, brown, New York streets, not neon Miami (even the new release box art is brown and yellow). Even when things aren’t neon, they’re pretty bluish, and unfortunately modern.
We’re not quite talking the same level of re-timing seen on Anchor Bay’s 25th anniversary release of Halloween (which many fans will remember as way too blue), or even the recent Blu-ray release of the Godfather (which was an improvement, by the way), and in the long run I’m thinking this is still the preferred way to view the film, but fans will notice the difference. The advantage to this new colour-timing is a bunch of bottomless blacks, and some richer contrast levels, thanks to Friedkin’s insistence on bleeding the colour into a black-and-white version of the film (it’s all very technical, there’s a featurette on the disc for you). I also have to admit that I got used to the new colours pretty quickly.
Did you remember that The French Connection opened with two of the biggest, loudest, and most abrasive notes in film history? Well, after you hit play on this new lossless, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, you won’t forget again. As in the case of digital video enhancement, some older films don’t work well with modern audio re-tooling. Once again The French Connection isn’t one of them. Thanks in part to Don Ellis’ take no prisoners score, and the consistent New York street noise, the track is always busy and impressive. The score sounds quite crisp, almost as if it’s been re-recorded for this release. The spatial representation of the orchestra is somewhat wider than the previous release, and the bass levels are much more aggressive. The dialogue, most of which was recorded on set, under less than ideal conditions, so it hasn’t aged perfectly, but it still manages to mix rather convincingly into the new-fangled surround mix.
There are a couple of minor instances of the surround and stereo channel street noise sounding a bit artificial in the mix. It’s hard to compare, but it seems there were some added effects on this mix. There are also a few cases of voices that wonder into the surround channels being a bit too high in volume. The inclusion of the original Mono track (in two channels) is greatly appreciated, because even as a non-traditionalist, I can appreciate its texture and mix. If you chose to watch the film in its original mono, however, do yourself a favour and at least watch the celebrated chase in surround, beginning with the sniper scene.
I should also note the disc’s final track (of eight), which is Don Ellis’ isolated score. Watching the entire film this way is not recommended, as there are long periods without music that won’t be very interesting in complete silence, but everyone might want to visit the track at least a few times during viewing. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the isolated score sound fantastically clean, and features some surround work not plainly apparent during regular play. The DD track is lacking the super bass of the DTS track, but it’s only a minor quibble.
Many of this new release’s extra features can also be found on the two-disc DVD CE release, including two commentary tracks, one with director William Friedkin, and the other a scene specific chat with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Friedkin has recorded several terrible commentary tracks in his day, often loudly narrating the on-screen events, but here he hits it out of the park, remembering to not only describe his intricate filming process, but to let the audience in on the real case the film was based on. The Hackman/Scheider track is also a fact-filled odyssey (the actors recall a few stolen shots that Friedkin didn’t, and let us in on a young director’s dark side), but the actual talking is pretty minimal. The new addition on the first disc is a trivia track, which might be the densest of its kind I’ve ever seen. Not only did I learn a couple spare facts about the making of the film and the real case, but I now know the origin of the derogatory term ‘Frog’.
Disc two starts with the deleted/extended scenes section. There are eight scenes total, running about eleven and a half minutes, with an introduction from Friedkin, optional commentary from Friedkin, and the valuable play-all option. The final film is an unstoppable force, and the strict pacing is a valuable asset, so the deletion of these scenes was a good idea, however, the scenes themselves aren’t bad. In fact, they offer an occasionally shocking insight into the characters. The scenes are presented in hi-def, but mastered from 16mm, so they can only look so good. The soundtrack is rough, but clear enough to understand the dialogue.
Then the new extras start with ‘Anatomy of a Chase’, a twenty minute, hi-def look at the film’s heart-stopping chase scene (not surprisingly). Billy hosts a trip to the original site, which looks remarkably similar to how it looked thirty-eight years ago, and literally walks us through the scene starting shoot-out. The director then interviews producer Phil D’Antoni as they walk beneath the elevated train tracks. Then the duo jumps in a brown Pontiac, which is then driven by the film’s police advisor along the route taken in the film. It’s a very cute featurette, and a fun addition, but doesn’t really offer any new information.
‘Scene of the Crime’ is a companion piece to ‘Anatomy of a Chase’, covering the filming of another car scene, where the production, with the help of the police, caused an artificial traffic jam to recreate a real life event.
‘Hackman on Doyle’ sort of defines itself with the title, it’s an eleven minute interview with Gene Hackman, who chats about the film. A lot of his thoughts are scene specific, and already found (basically) on the scene specific commentary track, but it’s still interesting information. I recommend watching this interview instead of listening to the track, though you will miss out on Roy Scheider’s thoughts (as the actor died before he could give his thoughts for this disc).
‘Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection’ is again, a pretty descriptive title. Friedkin basically sits down with retired detective Eddie Grosso (the character played by Scheider in the film), and the two discuss the details of the famous case, and compare them to what was filmed. Much of this stuff is, again, available through the commentary track, but this particular featurette has a fair share of additional information. Not to mention the fun of hearing the story from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. These nineteen minutes are probably the best of the Blu-ray’s new additions.
‘Color Timing The French Connection’ is a reasonably in-depth thirteen minute look at the film’s latest re-mastering, the one that kind of bugged me as a fan. Friedkin defends his recreation pretty well, but I’m still not convinced that this process was necessary for this particular film. The featurette is very similar to one that can be found on New Line’s special edition release of Seven, where the old and new versions of the film are directly compared while the technician and Friedkin narrate the process.
‘Cop Jazz: The Music of Don Ellis’ also speaks for itself. This ten minute featurette mostly covers the composer’s French Connection work. It’s a technical little exploration, going into the details of Ellis’ love of the quarter tone (which is apparently the basis for much of his music, not just this score), Friedkin’s sparing use of the music, and nice breakdowns of every major cue in the film. The only problem with the featurette is the absence of Friedkin himself, who’s largely present everywhere else on the disc. Musical historian Jon Burlingame has to infer and guess a lot about the director’s intent.
‘Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection’ is a fourteen minute discussion with film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, who discuss the film’s importance in modern film history and compare and contrast it to classic film noir and crime films. The historians run through ‘good cop, bad cop’, working class jealousy, difficult boss, and other traditional, classical noir themes, and find a spot for the reality based French Connection within the tradition. I could watch a feature length documentary on these themes as compared to films beyond The French Connection, such as Melville’s Le Samourai, DePalma’s Scarface, Fincher’s Seven, and even popular television like CSI.
Things are wrapped up with the two documentaries that last saw release with the DVD set, the Mark Kermode hosted, fifty-three minute ‘The Poughkeepsie Shuffle’, and the sixty minute ‘Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of The French Connection’. These are the only non-HD extras on the set. Following the new extras, and the old commentaries, these docs are a bit repetitive, but are still ultimately quite fascinating, especially ‘The Poughkeepsie Shuffle’. For anyone not already acquainted with the behind the scenes story, or the true story behind that, I’d suggest starting with ‘The Poughkeepsie Shuffle’, moving onto the new featurettes, taking a listen to the commentaries, and a final look at ‘Making the Connection’.
The French Connection belongs in a small collection of films which can be truly be called perfect. I honestly believe that nothing that could be done to make it better and that it will stand the test of time so long as society hasn’t evolved to a point that language and ocular input doesn’t make logistical sense. This new Blu-ray release isn’t perfect thanks to some recent fiddling with the colours, but it approaches perfection, and genuinely works in high definition. There aren’t many new surprises in the extra features, but there also wasn’t much room for improvement from the last go-around. The only reason for Blu-ray owners not to buy this is their tolerance for the new colour-timing.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 24th February 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Surround 2.0 English, Dolby Mono 2.0 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Isolated Score
Subtitles: English HoH, French, and Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Actor Commentary, Trivia Track, Trailers, Deleted Scenes, 'Anatomy of a Chase', 'Hackman on Doyle', 'Friedman and Grosso remember the real French Connection', 'Scene of the Crime', 'Cop Jazz', 'Colour Timing the French Connection', 'Rogue Cop', BBC Documentary: 'The Poughkeepsie Shuffle', 'Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of The French Connection'
Easter Egg: No
Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama and Thriller
Length: 104 minutes
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