The French Connection (1971): A Great Period Piece Thriller and the Drug War

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     I really enjoyed “The French Connection.” I liked very few of the characters in it, but the story itself and the the fact that it’s a slow thriller with great build up made it a lot of fun to watch. I never felt bored and whether purposeful or not, this film does a great job of showing how unfair the drug war is to communities without power. The fact that it is based off a non-fiction book by the same name also lends power to the narrative and makes me want to read it.

     The film was directed by William Friedkin, written by Ernest Tidyman produced by Philip D’Antoni and based off the book by Robin Moore.

     The story recounts the events of trying to take down the drug lord Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) during his stay in New York City by the detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider). Things soon get out of their control as they discover just how high up Charnier’s influence goes and the problems “Popeye” causes during the course of the investigation.

The Pros: The Writing – Ernest Tidyman did a great job on the script. So much of it is showing rather than telling and we get to figure things out with the Detectives as we never see what Sal or Charnier do in regards to the movement of the drugs. This makes it compelling and drives the thriller, especially since they initially don’t come off as bad people.

The Cinematography – Owen Roizman did a great job on this film. The cinematography pulls you in and captures the tension really well as there is an aura of shadow about everything and the desolate areas take place with contrasted with the bustle of New York create a wonderful sense of mystery and fear.

The Soundtrack – Don Ellis took a classic approach to this soundtrack (sounds similar to any Hitchcock film with it’s own twist) and it serves the story very well. Throughout the soundtrack there is a slow build up of action leading to a finalness and ambiguity, which fits the themes and characters of the film.

Sal – Sal is working with Charnier to get the drugs to sell on the streets and he nearly succeeds even with the police around his home and tracking him everywhere. He is a cheater but we see that he isn’t a murder, at least in the events of this film. He never attacks unless he’s attacked and a lot of what he does goes towards his family. He’s complicated for a minor drug dealer. Tony Lo Bianco did a good job. He was the only memorable minor character.

Alain Charnier – Is the mastermind behind the deal going down and actually manages to escape at the end of the film. He is kind and genial but also works with monsters like his Hitman so has a disregard for those who don’t serve his purposes as “Popeye” does. Fernando Rey did a fantastic job as the antagonist who drives the story and keeps the action and questions going through the film.

Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle – “Popeye” is obsessed and is cynical about everyone. We see him call all people liars and beat suspects on multiple occasions. It’s really hard to see him as any sort of heroic given that he targets people, especially African-Americans who have done nothing wrong and acts like a bully. This is contrasted with the sensitivity of Charnier. In the end it is his obsession that is his undoing as he kills someone on the force thinking they were Charnier and escapes into the dark where we here a gunshot. He was complicated, which made him fun to watch. Gene Hackman is also a wonderful actor.

Buddy “Cloudy” Russo – Roy Scheider plays the only character who is remotely sympathetic as he calls out his partner “Popeye” when he does bully. He is also the one who registers what the obsession is doing, especially at the end when “Popeye” kills one of the detectives in his obsession and fear of Charnier.

Life Under the Drug War and Abuse – The drug war disproportionately targets communities without power, largely poor and minority communities and this film does a great job portraying that as we see Russo and Doyle do random shakedowns, beat people when questioning them and never have their force questioned unless it is by one another. This is obviously still going on and is just as real in the late 60’s when it took place as it is today.

The Ending – The ending ends with Doyle shooting his boss and escaping into the dark believing he saw Charnier. A gunshot goes off and later we see in the credits that Charnier was never caught, showing that all of Doyle’s obsession was in the end, kind of empty and didn’t even help himself.

Okay: The Minor Characters – Most of the minor characters are forgettable and none of them really stand out besides Sal. Part of this might be purposeful as they are nothing to the detectives but means to an end, but I would have liked to see more with Charnier’s Hitman, girlfriend and Sal’s spouse. These characters were pretty forgettable which was a shame.

  This is a great thriller that ends up showing a lot more than it may have meant to. I don’t know what side of the story the book takes but this does a good job of showing that there aren’t really any good people in this conflict except maybe Buddy. Everyone else is driven and obsessed and has a disregard for life because of that obsession with meeting their own ends…and their obsessions get others killed. It was also powerful how this film showed how the communities without power are the ones who get the brunt of the war as we saw from the African American bar shakedown and the places were most of the police stakeouts took place. This lended power to the film beyond the very good script, cinematography and acting by the main stars. Honestly, it didn’t need a sequel.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10

Jaws (1975): Terror and Politics in a Tourist Town

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Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is a beloved classic for a reason. It is also a film that I had not seen until quite recently. This actually applies to a lot of Spielberg’s work, so one of these weeks I will be doing a Steven Spielberg week since his style, for better and for worse, it so distinct.

“Jaws” is based off the book by the same name by Peter Benchley, who also wrote the screenplay in this instance (which is a pro for the story) along with Carl Gottlieb. The writing and the world are very solid and serve the film extremely well.

The story takes place in the small tourist town of Amity, whose income almost entirely relies on people coming to enjoy the beach. It kicks off with a bunch of kids partying and one of them going out to swim and getting killed mysteriously. Brody the Sheriff later finds her body and suspect a shark, which the mayor covers up because he doesn’t want to cause a panic or hurt the local economy. He continues to cover it up after the scientist Hooper arrives and confirms the shark they captured, did not have a big enough bite and that the shark is still out there. From here the story unfolds as the shark strikes again and Brody, Hooper and the eccentric fisherman Quint have to stop it.

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Here is the assessment of the film:

Pros: The Soundtrack – John Williams does an excellent job scoring this film, especially with the memorable shark approaching theme in how it causes tension. The only thing I don’t like is when he goes whimsical, which I think might be more Spielberg’s fault than his since it clashes with the rest of the movies tone.

Rising Action / Tension – The Tension in this film is palpable, you never see the Shark until the very end, so it is the hidden underwater threat. This is done well in how Spielberg shows us the Shark’s point of view when it is stalking it’s human prey on a few occasions. Whenever he gives us the human point of view we are left in the dark until it is too late, even at the end this rule applies.

The Three Leads

Brody – Roy Scheider does a good job as the detective who is torn between his duty to the local government and the mayor, and to protecting his family. He pretty much goes along with the mayor with only slight protest until Hooper reminds him that they can confirm the Tiger Shark was the killer by cutting it open. They do so and that keeps him fighting again and making sure the beaches are being scoured by police to protect the visitors. Brody also gets the final kill and is the one who doesn’t give in to Quint’s machismo as Quint destroys the radio when he is calling for help as the Shark has destroyed their boat.

Quint – This guy is the fisherman and shark hunter with a major chip on his shoulder. He’s had a few marriages and thinks the only measure of a person is physical strength. He does have some great moments connecting with the guys though, especially with Hooper as they swap shark stories and he opens up about the fact that he fought in World War 2 and why he has such a depressed outlook on life. When his ship sunk he saw sharks kill most of his men which gives him a “Moby Dickish” relationship to them, and like Captain Ahab he dies fighting Jaws at the end. Robert Shaw is good in this role.

Hooper – Richard Dreyfuss is fantastic in this role. He’s the college educated guy who studies sharks for a living and loves them. He’s the outsider and his connecting with Quint over scars from the sharks is pretty fun as they are all getting drunk. He can be annoying sometimes, but you get where he is coming from as Quint doesn’t listen to anyone. He is also the one who motivates Brody to action and actually doing something about the shark. He’s my favorite character in this and one of my favorite actors.

The Mayor – The Mayor is good as the corrupt guy just going after the bottom line, until the 4th of July when the shark strikes again and he is forced to recognize he’s been wrong all along and this his child could have died. He has sleaze and charisma, making him and interesting secondary antagonist who comes around to neutral.

Okay: Brody’s Family – They are mostly there as a motivator. They don’t hurt the plot in any way, I just never felt connected to them as people. They only existed as possible victims of the Shark.

The Townspeople and Tourists – Are all pretty one note, they are doing their thing, but none of them really stand out as unique. They are more of the setting than anything else in the end.

Con: The Chase and Change of Tone – There is a seen where Brody, Quint and Hooper have attached barrels to Jaws and are chasing after him and the music gets all whimsical…there is still 30 to 40 minutes left…the victory music was declared way too early and clashes with the fact that Jaws destroys their ship later and eats Quint. The score should have just stuck with tension…cause even when they are chasing Jaws, the boat and are characters are still getting hurt by Jaws.

This film is a classic for a reason. I love how it explores the small town politics and how distinct the three leads are as characters. Hooper has to be one of my favorite characters in any films and it is awesome seeing a young Richard Dreyfuss. I would definitely recommend this film. It is a classic for a reason and has an amazing score to go with it along with the amazing direction of Steven Spielberg.

Final Score is 9 / 10.