By Scott Ross
Possibly the last thing of which anyone who knows your humble scribe would accuse him is prudery. Still, like many writers I prefer to be a bit a bit more restrained, and a great deal less profane, in my published prose, as opposed to my plays (or indeed, my daily life). But to assess the work and personality of the American director William Friedkin means admitting that only one word will do, and it isn’t exactly decorous.
That word, in the demotic and not the literal, sense, is “asshole.”
To be sure, one may be an enormously gifted asshole, yet an asshole nonetheless — the arts are full of them, and if you’ve had anything to do with performance of any kind you’ve doubtless met, and endured, your share. Although seldom one who, as Friedkin does, seems to take positive pride in being as big an asshole as possible.
There may be other words one can use to call a man who spreads utterly debunkable, not infrequently offensive, fabrications as if they were gospel; who deliberately endangers the lives of countless innocent bystanders, not to mention those of his cast and crew, by surreptitiously staging high-speed chases on busy city thoroughfares; who claims specious co-authorship of screenplays he patently did not write; who bullies his actors, publicly and mercilessly when he is not actually, and with due premeditation, causing them excruciating physical pain* (and this is what he does to his friends!); who seldom praises the work of collaborators, and who cannot even accept a compliment without simultaneously degrading someone else. There may, as I say, be other words but I am fully persuaded that, in this case, “asshole” is the mot juste.
There were, it seems, and aside from its director, a veritable clutch of assholes on the set of The French Connection (1971). Chiefest — because arguably most seminal — was Eddie Egan, the bantam cop upon whose exploits, with his partner Sonny Grosso, Robin Moore based his eponymous, and somewhat fictionalized, account. (A bestseller, moreover, which Friedkin claims not to have been able to follow. I’ve seen my share of “Hurricane Billy”’s sometimes narratively impenetrable movies, so for once I actually believe one of his claims; the man must have the attention span of a not terribly perspicacious gnat.†) Neither Egan nor Friedkin wanted Gene Hackman in the movie, and both did their best to make him miserable during a shoot already damn near insupportable due to extreme New York cold. A secondary, but not inconsiderable, asshole was the veteran stuntman Bill Hickman, although he at least was not on hand as much as Egan.
It must be admitted that as an actor Egan fulfills his part in the movie as Hackman’s supervisor splendidly, gruff and reasonable in equal measure and with what can only be described as a real New York face with which to decorate a movie largely dependent upon them. Hickman, who memorably jousted with Steve McQueen in the justifiably famous San Francisco car chase in Bullitt, and who doubled for Hackman here, likewise fires his small but telling role as Hackman’s snarling adversary with unlovable panache.
Much of the criticism leveled at The French Connection on its release centered on the unrepentant boorishness of the Egan character, called “Popeye” Doyle here. (“Popeye” was Egan’s nickname in life, just as Grosso, immortalized by the great Roy Scheider, was known as “Cloudy,” his appellation in the movie.) There were similar complaints about Dirty Harry that same year, notably by Pauline Kael, who loathed both characters. But aside from their doing the job of big-city police detectives with ruthless, indeed amoral, attitudes, and bearing in mind Orson Welles’ useful Touch of Evil maxim that “The job of a policeman is only easy in a police state,” the similarity ends here. The creeping fascism of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is sanctimonious, a way for the actor to hector the audience for its reliance on those deplorable shades of grey with which artists and civil libertarians (and other less emotionally retarded adults) view humanity. “Popeye” doesn’t pause to lecture; he’s far too busy painstakingly ferreting out drug dealers. And anyway, he wouldn’t if he could. Also, his flaws are obvious: Pervasive bigotry, a willingness to cut corners — which may have led to all those light and suspended sentences the movie’s end titles inform us were meted out in the case — and a temper that, combined with zealousness, leads to needless death. (Even some cops were troubled by Popeye’s shooting, in the picture, of the admittedly terrifying assassin played by Marcel Bozuffi, whose death gave the movie both its poster image and its most resounding success with theatre audiences.)
What really sets The French Connection apart, then and now and from first frame to last, is Friedkin’s documentary realism. As with Midnight Cowboy (and, on the comic side, The Out-of-Towners) the city itself becomes, not merely a backdrop, but a major character — and not a pretty one: Squalid, hostile, dangerous, more than vaguely threatening, it’s the image of New York in the ’70s most of us who grew up then still associate with that period. On my first trip to Manhattan in December of 1979, I found the city unsettlingly like the one depicted here by Friedkin and his prodigiously gifted cinematographer, Owen Roizman. (It didn’t help that my visit was in winter, and my companion and I seldom saw the sun for most of the trip.) I doubt the city’s Tourist Bureau was best pleased by The French Connection, but if ever there were a time-capsule New York movie, it’s this one.
The picture’s producer, Philip D’Antoni, likewise produced Bullitt, and wanted an urban chase, not merely to equal that one, but to surpass it. However one may deplore Friedkin’s ill-conceived and arrogant methods, D’Antoni certainly got what he was after. (And here is as good a place as any to acknowledge the movie’s superb editing, by Gerald B. Greenberg.)
The spare, effective score, which begins with an astonishingly electric, if brief, main title, was by the late Don Ellis, most of whose compositions were later removed. Loath as I am to side with the director on the matter of film music (he infamously tossed Lalo Schifrin’s score for The Exorcist out in favor of some notably hideous screechings by the like of Webern and Penderecki) Friedkin may have had a point here; too much underscoring could well have detracted from the effective cinéma vérité style of the movie as a whole, although I think Ellis’ dissonant approach compliments, rather than distracts from, the action, at least as it ended up in theatres.††
The supporting cast is equally splendid, from Egan, Hickman and Bozuffi to Tony Lo Bianco as the minor hood hoping to join the majors and Patrick McDermott’s portrayal of a chillingly cavalier young drug analyst. Fernando Rey, although Spanish (and according to Friedkin, anyway, not the actor he had in mind) lends the movie an unexpected whiff of Continental elegance, never more so than at the climax of his cat-and-mouse subway game with Hackman.
As Doyle, Hackman is so wholly persuasive you’d never imagine the actor was, ethically and temperamentally, the diametric opposite of Popeye. The accent may be indeterminate, but Hackman’s is a performance of breathtaking pitilessness, unhampered by anything approaching vanity. And Scheider’s “Cloudy” Russo is a star-making performance if ever there was one. Gentler in aspect despite his rough-hewn face, he is in some sense not merely Doyle’s histrionic opposite but the audience’s surrogate as well, amused and appalled by his partner in equal measure. (Note Scheider’s barely restrained hilarity when Popeye goes into his patented, non-sequitur, “You ever been to Poughkeepsie?” spiel. Grosso, in the field, was, he says, considerably less charmed.) Scheider essentially played Russo again two years later, in the D’Antoni-produced and directed The Seven-Ups, which also starred Lo Bianco and which likewise climaxed with a notably harrowing urban auto chase.
While there are, it must be said, no notable black faces among the law enforcement figures depicted in The French Connection, but plenty in the drug-bars Popeye and Cloudy invade, we twice see Hackman charming (and, at least on the surface, being charmed by) small black and Hispanic children while disguised as Santa Claus. An early, and key, exchange between Hackman and Scheider, which occurs after the latter has been knifed during an arrest, hints past Doyle’s blatant racism, to his essential misanthropy:
Popeye: You dumb guinea.
Cloudy: How the hell was I supposed to know he had a knife?
Popeye: Never trust a nigger.
Cloudy: He could have been white.
Popeye: Never trust anyone.
Spoken like a true asshole.
*Ellen Burstyn, during the filming of The Exorcist. The damage to her back, deliberately precipitated by Friedkin to elicit a “better” emotional response than she was giving, is now chronic.
†Friedkin is so anti-writer that it’s difficult to get a handle on who wrote the actual screenplay. It’s credited to Ernest Tidyman, another major asshole.
††You can, thankfully, get the full score, along with Ellis’ compositions for the 1975 sequel, on the recent La-La Land soundtrack CD. Both were available previously from Film Score Monthly, but — due to single-disc space limitations — without the wonderful Jimmy Webb song “Everybody’s Going to the Moon,” performed by The Three Degrees. The La-La Land set, on two discs, includes it.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross