I’ve been thinking about timeless storytelling a lot these days — movies that transcend a time and place, that seem to age like a fine wine. The French Connection is a Penfolds Grange to me, William Friedkin’s gritty New York drama about a pair of hard-boiled detectives called Popeye (Gene Hackman) and Buddy (Roy Scheider) that are desperate to bury an elusive international heroine ring.
Re-watching after a rotten day at the office, my troubles vanished into the ether as the film took my breath away. There is a brutal immediacy to Friedkin’s storytelling as he offers an incredible portrait of 1970s New York in truly verité style. Owen Roizman’s cinematography is hand-held and dirty, putting you right into the heart of the action much like a low-rent documentary. You almost forget you’re watching a narrative film.
The French Connection is a prime example that they don’t make movies like they used to. The low budget affair was all shot on location, had no shooting permits and pulled off every trick in the book to make sure the audience never knew any better. To this day I still can’t comprehend how no one ended up in the morgue during production — especially Hackman who charges through the film like a wounded bull. He’s sensational.
While Friedkin has always been overlooked by his contemporaries, he was a force to be reckoned with. In fact it was this film that shot the young-gun onto center stage after the film cleaned up at the box office and collected five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and a well deserved win for Hackman.
There are so many incredible BTS stories from this masterpiece. Of Friedkin finding Hackman positively soporific after their first meeting and reluctantly casting him after everyone else had turned the role down. Of his casting director hiring the wrong ‘Fernando’ after enjoying Luis Bunuel’s Tristana and discovering the Spaniard spoke no English after picking him up at LAX. My favourite story is how Friedkin and his producer bribed the head of the MTA Transit Authority with sixty grand and a one-way ticket to Jamaica in order to pull off the infamous elevated train sequence. How I’d love to meet that guy…
While I’m no expert, my gut tells me that the most timeless stories are the ones that grab you by the ears. They’re transporting, uplifting and never let you cop a peek at your Instagram feed.