Tuesday, July 09, 2013

William Friedkin

The devil is in the details. The heroin is in the rocker panels.

In his first true action outing, Friedkin brought a touch of Euro class, a bit of Melville and French policier to the Hollywood cop genre by focusing on the specifics of flat-foot narcotics police work rather than the typical good guy-bad guy melodramatics. In French Connection, the good guys and bad guys are hard to distinguish. It's all about doing the job and doing it obsessively, whatever that job may be. Intercontinental drug smuggling, long-term surveillance, shaking down a bar full of smack addicts and making a milkshake out of their gear.

Surprisingly, this ripped from the headlines, documentary style approach netted Friedkin his first big hit and first big award in the process (Academy Award for Best Director). The fantastic subway-car chase didn't hurt. Hackman's blustery yet precise performance as Popeye Doyle didn't either. The French Connection is an American movie through and through and a New York movie more so, right down to the cheap slices and bad deli coffee Popeye Doyle scarfs while stamping his cold feet on a stakeout. But its willingness to ride morally ambiguous lines and present a protagonist arguably sleazier than the antagonist seems to have come from some other place (Euro cinema). Would Popeye be as racist if The French Connection were made today? Would he flout the Constitution so flagrantly? Would he still shoot an FBI man instead of Frog One? And, if so, would there be any ambiguity at all whether it was accidental or on purpose? Probably not.

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