So many changes have been made in Robin Moore’s taut, factual reprise of one of the biggest narcotics hauls in New York police history that only the skeleton remains, but producer Philip D’Antoni and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman have added enough fictional flesh to provide director William Friedkin and his overall topnotch cast with plenty of material, and they make the most of it.
While, ideally, the story calls for the oldtime Louis De Rochemont documentary handling, the flashy treatment it gets, a la D’Antoni’s “Bullitt,” may be more attractive to today’s less critically demanding market. And, inasmuch as many of the criminal elements originally involved in the caper got little or no punishment for their actions, legal clearances were probably too involved to permit greater authenticity. Nevertheless, there are a few fillips in the film that appear gratuitous and less important to the plot than the space given them, such as the heavy stress on narcotics roundups in Harlem with two white detectives terrorizing numerous black addicts just to convey the impression that a shortage of available dope existed. There is also a meaningless killing (albeit, accidentally) of a quarrelsome F.B.I. agent by one of the detectives.
Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider are very believable as two hard-nosed narcotics officers who, by accident, stumble onto what turned out to be the biggest narcotics haul to date (until the recent Jaguar cache). As suave and cool as the two cops are overworked, tired and mean, Fernando Rey makes an auspicious debut in a major American film as the French mastermind of the almost-perfect plan.
Friedkin, who’s proven himself in both comedy and comedy-drama, includes a great elevated train-automobile chase sequence that becomes almost too tense to be enjoyable, especially for New Yorkers who are familiar with such activities.
Shot entirely in and around New York, with the exception of a couple of brief expositional location scenes in Marseilles and one in Washington, Owen Ruizman’s fluid color camera explores most of Manhattan and much of Brooklyn without prettifying the backgrounds. Actual locales have been changed frequently–the nightclub (the Copacabana in the book) is a fictional one with a Supremes-like trio, The Three Degrees, doing a turn; the Westbury Hotel gets a lot of prominence when it was the Victoria in fact. Jerry Greenberg has edited things down to a very taut 104 minutes.
In lesser roles but making excellent impressions, Tony LoBianco is an over-ambitious young Mafiaite (the film never uses the term); Harold Gary is the Jewish criminal who finances the caper; Marcel (“Z”) Bozzuffi is great as Rey’s kill-happy assistant; Frederic De Pasquale is Devereaux, the French tv personality conned into shipping the dope-laden car around which the story turns. All the bit parts are highly professional.
There’s a big market for a good fast film such as “French Connection,” but the high level of violence and frequently-used obscene language have earned it an R rating, which will limit its success unless there’s an attempt to do certain amount of cleaning. Unfortunately, this seems next to impossible.
1971: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Gene Hackman), Adapted Screenplay, Editing.
Nominations: Best Supp. Actor (Roy Scheider), Cinematography, Sound