By the time he arrived at The French Connection, William Friedkin had already mastered cinematic naturalism – a considerable achievement, given that his previous three films were all theatrical adaptations of one kind or another. With The French Connection, he took that naturalism and applied it to the streets of New York and Marseilles, creating a film that is almost entirely shot outdoors and on location, while also forming a cinematic vocabulary that exceeds naturalism in the process, paving the way for the heightened style of The Exorcist. In fact, The French Connection often seems like a critique of naturalism as New Hollywood conceived of it, focusing especially on the way that naturalism occurs at the expense of black folk, who are thereby deemed unnatural, or beneath naturalistic notice. The first act of the film is driven by two sustained depictions of police brutality, which immediately distance us from the two main charaters – “Popeye” Doyle, played by Gene Hackman and “Cloudy” Russo, played by Roy Scheider, a pair of police officers who are tasked with investigating the heroin trade in New York, and discerning the “French connection” to a prominent Marseilles cartel.
Throughout the opening scenes, however, it often feels as if Popeye and Cloudy’s entire career subsists on shaking down black bars, harassing black suspects, and making life as difficult as possible for New York’s black community. It’s not hard to see the origins of contemporary police brutality in Popeye’s paranoid masculinity, as Friedkin repeatedly frames Marseilles as a cipher for the black population of New York – the part of the city that Popeye can’t process, and that New Hollywood naturalism can’t properly process either. In fact, as Friedkin presents it, New Hollywood naturalism is largely a defensive and regressive posture – a way of regulating and containing Afrofuturism, as well as a self-serious “corrective” to the ebullient Blaxploitation cinema that was peaking in New York around this moment. Time and again, Popeye and Cloudy treat black bars as an exercise in segregation, breaking up crowds by locking individuals in phone booths, toilet and other confined spaces.
No surprise, then, that Friedkin doesn’t bother to humanise Popeye and Cloudy that much – or even really characterize them, immediately subsuming them into a systems narrative that displaces their default claims to charisma or control in a white film about white police officers. For a moment, Popeye seems like he might be a residually beneficent or paternal presence, thanks both to his name and to our first glimpse of him in a Santa Claus outfit, but that illusion quickly vanishes with his first maxim – “never trust a n—-r” – which pretty much dictates the way he treats the black community from hereon in. With character largely sidelined, dialogue is almost subaudible, halfway between speech and monologue, making it quite difficult to figure out what is going on until about halfway through the film. Most scenes follow Popeye and Cloudy as they watch people, or try to avoid being watched themselves, and so the dialogue always exudes the drifting, half-distracted quality that ensues when two people are watching something together, rather than directly conversing face to face. After a while, Friedkin simply resorts to voiceover for exposition, or treats these hushed half-conversations as exposition, using them to score long scenes where we never see Popeye or Cloudy’s faces.
This almost-dialogue is the first step in Friedkin’s post-naturalism, which continues through the incredible porosity he assigns to New York, which seems to breathe and expand with every shot. Friedkin’s camera was already restless during his stage adaptations, but here it’s positively hyperactive, resorting to constant zooms, pans and close-ups, paired with grainy, blurry, docudrama-styled footage, but also dramatically alternating between different kinds of footage to produce a palimpsest of different urban surfaces and textures. At times, the frantic, frenzied, fractured camera work reflects the handheld digital revolution of the 00s giving the whole film a bleary-eyed feel, where the city is always a little too bright and glary – always a little too present – as if the camera has just stumbled out of bed, or had too many drinks the night before. Lest that turn New York into a sentimental melting-pot, Friedkin also regularly cuts back to Marseilles, which provides a much starker and more monochromatic texture, embedding New York back in the austere global spaces of the 70s surveillance thriller.
However, the most distinctive trait of The French Connection is that it is always in motion, effectively playing as a series of tracking scenes and chase scenes that escalate as Popeye and Cloudy draw near to the heart of the Marseilles cartel. Insofar as a narrative exists in the film, it only emerges gradually and provisionally from these kinetic sequences, which all subsist on incredible location shooting, typically from cars, or from spaces involving cars. Not only does the cartel operate by frequently switching cars, and leaving objects in cars, but the drugs themselves are transported from Marseilles to New York in cars. For the most part, cars provide the most critical bridge from naturalism to post-naturalism in the film, since about half of the action occurs behind the wheel, and Friedkin often seems to be straining for a film that might be shot entirely from the purview of an accelerating automobile. This constant motion often reminded me of the way that the Dardenne Brothers would shoot Seraing, in Belgium, two decades later, since New York here exudes a similar intensity – a vortical presence that absorbs everyone and everything into its propulsive and preternatural power.
Put bluntly, then, Friedkin’s long tracking sequences and chase sequences exhaust naturalism, instead immersing us in an automotive perception, or autocentric perception, that stretches his camera work to its very limits. Along with The Conversation, that makes The French Connection the purest of 70s surveillance thrillers – the least encumbered by plot, and the most ambitious in its desire to envisage a film entirely composed of characters watching and following each other. In the process, Friedkin outdoes even Sidney Lumet in his dexterity in shooting in New York, culminating with one of the greatest chase sequences ever filmed. This sequence starts by condensing all the tracking and chasing into a moment of pure surveillance – Popeye arriving home to his housing estate, where he is confronted by a sniper shooting at him from a nearby tower. Popeye runs up to the rooftop to occupy the sniper’s panoptic position, before chasing him along the bottom of the Rockaway elevated train, and up onto the platform, only for the shooter – a member of the cartel called Nicoli – to board the train in time. Earlier in the film, Popeye has been defied by another member of the cartel on a train platform, so now he takes no chances, hopping in a car and following the train from below.
During this incredible sequence, Friedkin converges a series of propulsive forward trajectories into a post-naturalist mission statement. First, we follow Popeye as he drives beneath the elevated line, dodging around an incredible panoply of cars, pedestrians and urban objects, trying to remain in the train’s slipstream while occasionally having to veer away from the line as it curves and verges towards its terminus. Second, we follow Nicoli as he runs up through the train, and then a series of security guards as they pursue him. Third, we follow the train itself, as Nicoli takes the driver hostage, and forces him to continue speeding through each station, as the train accelerates beyond all point of stopping. In the process, Friedkin moves from POV shots through Popeye’s windscreen, to POV shots from Nicoli and the guards as they move up through the train, to POV shots from the front of the train itself, using the acceleration of the train to accelerate the camera’s own capacity to register speed and space, to the point where the film stock seems destined to conflagrate in the process of shooting it.
In doing so, Friedkin attempts to converge all the film’s mobile sequences, and all its amorphous sources of surveillance, into a single propulsive trajectory capable of gathering all the sightlines of the film into a post-naturalist manifesto – the post-naturalism needed to evoke the global reach of the Marseilles cartel, which totally exceeds the individual perceptual capacity of any one character, agency or institution, not least because the police turn out to play a critical role in its dissemination. It makes sense, then, that Popeye is no longer chasing anyone on the ground, since the chase becomes the mere foundation for a different conception of camera movement that hangs above it, more disembodied but also more visceral, in precisely the manner of later digital cinema. You might say that Popeye strains his own naturalistic vocabulary here for a digital sensibility that only Friedkin’s camera can properly glimpse, as he tries in vain to inhabit that POV shot from the front of the train.
Watching this scene, I was reminded of Deleuze’s observation that post-WWII cinema often produced “pure optical situations” in which any and every attempt at action was subsumed back into a state of debilitated watching and waiting. In this incredible chase scene, Friedkin and Popeye do indeed seem to be trying to extend sight into action, although the lengths they have to go to in order to do it just ends up reiterating how much action has been absorbed back into sight to begin with. While The French Connection never quite returns to the heights of this scene, it does identify even more dramatically with cars in the wake of Popeye’s chase, effectively presenting New York as a city of cars rather than a city of people, and only conceding the existence of people insofar as they are fused with the cars they drive, chase, distribute or enjoy. For cars are, in Friedkin’s scheme, the very nexus between sight and movement, dependent on the cinematic expanse of the windscreen, but also capable of accelerating to a state where a post-naturalism, or even a post-cinema, becomes discernible.
This positioning of cars as the pivot between naturalism and post-naturalism culminates with the twist of the film – Popeye and Cloudy’s realisation that the drugs they have been using cars to locate are in fact situated and transported in cars themselves. To that end, they perform an autopsy on one of the cartel’s cars, taking it apart to inspect every conceivable nook and cranny, in what increasingly feels like a dissection of Friedkin’s camera, and its capacity to both bridge the widening gap between sight and action, and guarantee intensity of movement in a climate where watching and waiting has absorbed all other activities. Only after having exhausted every other space do Popeye and Cloudy realise the heroin has been stored in the rocker panels of the car – the very last threshold that the driver’s feet dangle over when moving between car and world, and between human and automotive perception.
This threshold is, ultimately, the French Connection, framing car travel itself as the point of mediation and exchange within the global economic space that Popeye and Cloudy’s own automotive forensics set out to map and forestall. As in Taxi Driver, the windscreen here both culminates and exhausts naturalistic scrutiny of the American cityscape, forming the shifting centre of a systems narrative that often seems to anticipate the dense details of The Wire, which also invokes naturalism only to attempt something beyond it. In the final piece of the puzzle, Popeye and Cloudy learn that the cartel is simply an exchange-principle built around the rocker panels they traverse every day to try and contain it – money is left in the panels when the car is shipped one direction, heroin when shipped the other. Yet this revelation also debilitates Friedkin’s camera, which can no longer get ahead of this global scheme like it does in Rockaway, collapsing back into the desuetude of Ward’s Island for a jarringly abrupt ending.
In these closing moments, The French Connection collapses itself so absolutely into the gritty texture of the city that we are watching something considerably more radical than mere location filming – instead, the film becomes a location in itself, just another partially available fragment of the city. Indeed, one of the main drug pushers uses location scouting for a fictional film as an excuse for leaving his car by the Brooklyn Bridge, indicating that Friedkin’s camera is doing something other than just seeking out space, or shooting spaces, that are putatively “separate” from it. Instead, the film doesn’t end so much as just fade back into the city it embodies, so it’s not hard to see why The French Connection II followed so quickly, nor why John Frankenheimer, the master of car chases, was chosen to direct it. In a strange way, though, the presence of a sequel, great as it is, just reiterates the strangeness and austerity of the original, which ushered in another great evolution in Friedkin’s journey as a director.