Blu-ray Review: The French Connection (Fox Filmmakers Signature Series)

The French Connection was first released on Blu-ray back in 2009. However, it was quite controversial due to director William Friedkin’s decision to make some odd revisionist color-timing decisions for the transfer. The color transfer was such a disappointment that even the movie’s cinematographer, Owen Roizman voiced his displeasure.

Now, in 2012, Fox has released a brand new remastered edition of The French Connection as part of the studio’s Filmmakers Signature Series collection. Initially, released in March as a Best Buy Exclusive, the Blu-ray became available at retailers everywhere as of September 18th 2012.

While The French Connection certainly deserves to be described as tough, edgy, profane and explosive, somewhat slow should be added as well. Te action doesn’t start right away; instead; director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (High Plains Drifter), crafted a story in which the tension slowly increases. The two men created enough excitement to keep viewers on the edge of their seats until the final shoot out. The French Connection became the first R-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Gene Hackman), Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Ernest Tidyman).

Gene Hackman: The French ConnectionThe film is a fictionalized account of the book by Robin Moore. The movie tells the story of how two New York City narcotics cops, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, in the early sixties made the biggest drug bust in U.S. history at that time. They recovered over sixty-four pounds of heroin, which had a street value well into the millions. The operation had been a huge success for at least twenty years.

The characters´ names for the film were changed to James”Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider), while the real Egan and Grosso stood by during production acting as technical consultants. Peter Boyle (Everybody Loves Raymond) was originally cast to play the role of “Popeye” Doyle but later turned down the role because his agent thought the movie was going to be a failure. One wonders if Bole ever regretted that decision.
The film opens on the waterfront in Marseilles, where we first meet the French drug kingpin, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).The kingpin is arranging his latest drug deal and his gunman (Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), is dispatching a investigator on his trail. The film then cuts to Brooklyn, where Doyle and Russo are roughing up small-time dealers and users in the local bars. In that process the twosome stumble upon the Frenchman’s operation, start tailing some local hoods, put some wiretaps in place which eventually leads them to Charnier. As it turns out, Charnier has come to the United States with his drugs hidden in an automobile belonging to a well-known French television star that Charnier had tricked into assisting in the crime.

Much of the first half works at a slower pace, building up the dramatic tension. The film shows the surveillance work of the two cops as they follow several shady characters around, including the Frenchman.

The action picks up at around the 45-minute mark; Charnier outfoxes Doyle in an excellent subway scene and the real chase begins. Doyle and Russo are briefly pulled off the case for lack of evidence but after Charnier orders Doyle killed and the plot fails, the cops are back on the case. After commandeering a civilian’s car, Doyle sets out after Nicoli in one of the best car chases on film. Many of the shots in the scene were “real”, in that legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman, who also had a small role in the film as FBI agent Mulderig, actually drove the car at high speeds through uncontrolled traffic and red lights, with Friedkin running a camera from the backseat while wrapped in a mattress for protection.

Often, at least one of the lead characters in a cop drama is sympathetic. However, in the case of The French Connection neither Doyle nor Russo is very likable. Doyle is a total slob, a racist and a ruthless cop; a bachelor, his idea of fun is loose women, booze and work all the time. As for Russo, he’s such a straight arrow he’s as dull as white bread. He does his best to keep Doyle out of trouble though and I guess that counts for something.

The thing that makes The French Connection so good is its sense of realism. Almost all of the action was filmed on location, both in New York and in France; the scenes in New York really allow viewers to see the grittier side of life on the city streets. According to Friedkin, the actors were encouraged to improvise whenever possible, which only adds to the realism of the film.

In this 1080p transfer approved by both Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman, we finally get The French Connection on Blu-ray the way it should look. Gone is the pastel look of the previous disc, in favor of one that has a much richer color palette, but leaves the gritty city feel in place. Black levels are deep, and detail is noticeably stronger. For my money, this is hands down the better transfer. I prefer films that are restored as close to the original product as possible.

The audio options remain the same as the earlier Blu-ray release. The audio is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, as well as French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. Purists will be pleased to find that they also included an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track, as well as the original English Mono track. Due to the films age, the soundtrack doesn’t sound as full as one might have liked but there is subtle use of surrounds that’s rather pleasing.

English SDH, Spanish, Mandarin (Simplified), and Russian subtitles are available.

The following special features are included:

  • Audio Commentary: In this excellent commentary track, director William Friedkin talks about all the different aspects of the production, the characters, and the action on the screen.
  • Audio Commentary: This track is really two different talks with actors Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider (recorded separately), and each actor discusses their personal experiences with the film.
  • Trivia Track: Information about production challenges, as well as the differences between the film version and the real “French Connection” smuggling case.
  • Isolated Score Track: Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Deleted Scenes (1080p, 12:12): William Friedkin Discusses the Deleted Scenes, Tailing the Frog, The Whip Girl, Devereaux at Work, Mutchie’s Bar and Mutchie’s Bar Part 2, Girl on a Bicycle, Street Walker, and Hector. In his open, Friendkin offers an intriguing discussion of the crude nature of pictures and the process of editing. The deleted scenes are also available with optional Friedkin commentary.
  • Anatomy of a Chase (1080p, 20:23): A featurette hosted by Friedkin, that takes us through the process of shooting the entire chase scene, with producer Philip D’Antoni and former NYPD detective Randy Jurgensen at the real locations.
  • Hackman on Doyle (1080p, 10:52): Gene Hackman discusses Doyle, and the challenges in making the film.
  • Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection (1080p, 19:16): Friedkin with real detective Sonny Grosso discuss the actual case that inspired the book and the film.
  • Scene of the Crime (1080p, 5:17): Friedkin and actor (and then-real-life police officer) Randy Jurgensen recall the making of one of the film’s most important sequences.
  • Cop Jazz: The Music of Don Ellis (1080p, 10:07): features film music historian Jon Burlingame discussing Ellis’ dark and jazzy score.
  • Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection (1080p, 13:50): A discussion about the impact that The French Connection had on modern crime films, and its evolution from older classic noir films.
  • Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of The French Connection (480p, 56:35): A Fox Movie Channel piece that examines the involvement of Officer Sonny Grosso in both the film and the real-world case.
  • Booklet: A glossy 25-page booklet highlighting the film, as well as the lives and careers of William Friedkin, Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, and Fernando Rey.

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