The French Connection

  • Title:  The French Connection
  • Director:  William Friedkin
  • Date:  1971
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Genre:  Action, Drama
  • Cast:  Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

The French Connection was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1972 (for the films of 1971) and won five. It’s on the AFI list of top 100 American films, and I bought it because it’s a well-known film I had never seen, and to be honest because Roy Scheider is in it, whom I really like as an actor.

I think the film really is a time capsule — it’s hard to tell how revolutionary the film would have been in the early 1970s, watching it for the first time in 2012. And it’s downright strange how this film seemed more odd to me than favorite classics of mine from the 1930s and 1940s. However, that doesn’t make it a bad film. It is a very good film, it’s just somewhat hard to relate to it. But it does explain a heck of a lot about 70s television — I can clearly see the connection between The French Connection and Starsky and Hutch, Streets of San Francisco or even The Professionals.

The film is based on a real case, one of the biggest Heroin busts in US history. That case inspired a true crime book called, The French Connection by Robin Moore. However, according to the various special features on the film, and the short/cut actor commentary most of the film was inspired by the technical advisers of the film, Eddie “Popeye” Egan and Sonny “Cloudy” Russo the two cops who made the case. Also, the director, Friedkin, and actors Scheider and Hackman spent considerable time doing research, preparing, and following Egan and Russo around on the streets of New York. That research combined with Friedkin’s background in shooting documentaries certainly added to the feel of the film.

The film does have a gritty, down and dirty, realism to it. Hackman’s Poyeye Doyle is not a nice guy — one of the issues I had watching the film was not just the swearing but the racist language used in the film. However, even with all his faults – Doyle is a good cop. He and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo have the highest number of convictions in the Narcotics department of the Brooklyn, New York, NY police department. Cloudy (Scheider in only his second film role) holds back Doyle, occasionally playing good cop to Doyle’s bad cop. But really, both are good cops — though realistically grim, gritty, tough, and nasty.

The plot involves trying to catch a French godfather who’s sending in multi-million dollar Heroin shipments into New York every six weeks or so. He uses a French actor to get a car in to the US, and the drugs are hidden in the rocker panels (floor boards under the car doors) of the car. But it takes a while for Doyle and Russo to put together what’s going on — and I had to watch the film twice to figure it out (though the second time I had one of the two commentaries on, so I wasn’t paying as close attention to what was going on, on the screen). The film shows the cops on long stakeouts and tails where not much happens until they spot one of the principals meeting a known drug kingpin. This gets them two wiretaps, which leads to the Frenchman calling to set-up a meeting. Before long, the case is coming together.

One of the best scenes in the film is a cat-and-mouse scene between Hackman and The Frenchman at the heart of the case on a subway. The two jump on and off and on and off a subway car – but in the end the Frenchman escapes. However, he puts a hit on Doyle.

This leads to the other big scene in the film, and the one it’s famous for — the car chase. The chase starts when a sniper shoots at Doyle, hitting an innocent woman, and causing havoc. Doyle finally gets to the roof, finds the guy’s rifle, then sees him fleeing the building, and gives chase on foot. When the sniper jumps a elevated train, Doyle commandeers a car and gives chase. The chase is pure chaos and incredibly done considering it was all practical. No computer-generated effects here, and no carefully plotted storyboards either. Just a gifted stunt driver, a car with a siren, and a few (though not enough) blocked streets. Most of the exciting parts of the chase were stunts, however, at one point a civilian car pulled out and hit Hackman while he was driving the car as fast as possible. Hackman was pushed into a metal support beam for the L. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident. However, the chase was put together in pieces:  a stunt driver named Hickman; Hackman actually driving with a camera car besides him; Hackman driving with a cameraman in the car. A stunt woman played the woman with the baby carriage that Doyle nearly hits. Meanwhile, on the train, the sniper is causing panic – taking over the train, shooting a train worker, and causing the driver of the train to have a heart attack, before crashing the train itself into another train. But the sequence is breath-taking. The chase ends with Doyle cornering the sniper on the stairs to the L station (which go sharply up because it’s an outdoor elevated train and station), and he shoots the now unarmed sniper in the back.

The film doesn’t have a lot of exposition explaining what’s going on — it trusts the audience to follow along for the ride. It’s also not a film filled with stunning visuals, or “movie moments”, rather it’s a grim, gritty, dirty, realistic-looking, almost documentary style of film. The film is so rough at times it’s almost uncomfortable to watch it. But it’s also stunningly compelling – and Hackman and Scheider are both brilliant.

Throughout the film there’s a huge, brown, Lincoln – by the end of  the film it’s almost menacing. Doyle and Russo manage to confiscate the car, get it stripped at a police garage, and finally when they’ve almost given up, locate the Heroin in the rocker panels (the floor boards under the front doors). When the French actor shows up to claim his car, they give it back, complete with the Heroin so they can make the bust. I honestly don’t know where they got a second, identical brown Lincoln, because the one they had was trashed.

The cops follow the Lincoln to an abandoned building, there’s a shootout and total chaos. But the brilliant bit is the ultimate end  — Doyle enters the building alone in search of the Frenchman. Russo, after aiding in the capture of the bad guys, goes in after his partner. Doyle’s so tense he nearly shoots Russo, but Russo warns him off with, “It’s me, it’s me!” FBI agent Mulderig isn’t so lucky — thinking he’s the Frenchman, Doyle shoots him. But the last shot, of Doyle walking though this dark, mucky, dirty, corridor-like building, walking into the distance, then there’s a gunshot, and the screen goes black, that’s brilliant, and makes the film worth watching and re-watching.

There is character in the film, and an interesting relationship between the two cops, but really I could have done with a lot more of that. Still, definitely worth the time to watch, and re-watch, and own.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 Stars
Next Film:  Either Royal Wedding or Cabaret which I also recently bought

Jaws

Title:  Jaws
Director:  Steven Spielburg
Date:  1975
Studio:  Universal
Genre:  Suspense, Drama
Cast:  Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“This was no boat accident.”  Matt Hooper

“It doesn’t make much sense for a guy who hates the water to live on an island either.”  — Hooper
“It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.”  — Martin Brodie

“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”  — Martin Brodie

Quite by accident Jaws was the first movie that I got on DVD, received as a gift.  I still love it though because it’s a masterful piece of suspense, and a fine character study.  It is not out and out shock-factor horror, in part due to happy accident — the mechanical shark didn’t work, and the film works better when you can’t see it.  There are some scenes where you finally do see the shark, and it looks very fake, though the film stands up by it’s well-drawn characters and their relationships.

Amity Island is an East Coast summer island, preparing for the busy Fourth of July summer holiday.  The film opens with a group of young people having a bonfire on the beach.  One of the teenaged girls runs off to go skinny dipping in the ocean, at night, and is attacked and killed (eaten) by the shark.  Martin Brodie (Roy Scheider), the chief of police, immediately tries to close the beach — but is prevented by the local mayor and business people who are afraid they will lose their summer income.

And thus the first half of the film almost has the format of a disaster film:  one guy (Brodie) knows there’s a threat to life and limb, but no one listens to him, because doing the smart thing is a threat to local business and income.  Later a young child is killed, and reward is offered for the shark.  Soon every idiot who can find a boat is out looking for the shark, and doing a terrible job.

At this point, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a shark expert, shows up.  He tells Brodie the shark someone’s caught is a Tiger shark and too small to have killed the girl who died.  What they are looking for is a Great White.

The scene where Hooper examines the remains of the dead girl is well done, because we don’t actually see the body, he just describes into a dictaphone what he sees and what’s missing, while trying not to lose his lunch.  Similarly, when Brodie found the girl in the first place — all the audience saw was the girl’s hand — that’s it, no body and no blood.  (There isn’t even any blood in the first attack scene, though there are in later ones).

Again, Brodie and Hooper want to close the beaches, but the mayor won’t allow it on Fourth of  July weekend.  After another attack, and Brodie nearly losing his own son (he survives), the mayor relents.

Whereas, the first half of the movie is like a disaster film — with the one guy trying to convince everyone else and not being believed; the second half of the film is closer to horror — though it’s still more suspense than horror.  Because of the problems with the shark, and Spielburg’s excellent direction, surprise, brief glances, and suggestion is used more than actually seeing the shark eat anyone.

The second half of the film has Brodie — the chief of police, and a guy who’s afraid of water; Quint (Robert Shaw) the old poacher and fisherman, and Hooper (the shark expert), stuck on Quint’s boat trying to catch the shark.  The film examines these three characters, their relationships to each other, and their relationships to the shark.  This is where the character-building occurs, having already been touched upon as the three very different men are introduced.

My favorite scene in the entire movie is actually where the three are in the cabin of the boat, they’ve just finished comparing scars (except Brodie), and the three start singing, “I’m tired and I Wanna go Home”, only to have the shark butt in, literally, as it begins to ram the boat.  At this point, too, the shark goes from the unseen, spooky, where will it show up next, monster — to something they cannot kill.  It makes the film more towards the horror genre, but even once we start to see the shark, it still isn’t seen all that often.  A big part of what makes Jaws scary is that what you don’t see is a lot scarier than what you do see.  Even in Jaws, when we see people splashing around in the water, and hear the marvelous Jaws theme music, that’s scarier as the audience anticipates something happening, than later when the shark takes a chunk out of Quint’s boat.

Again, the acting in this is marvelous.  Scheider is calm and collected, but you can see he’s repressing his fears, especially when in the boat, or watching people swimming in dangerous waters.  Some of the best shots are of him reacting to things.  Dreyfuss is the manic scientist, smart, knowledgeable, but also able to get a quick insult off at the stupidity of people on the island when he needs to.  He also quickly convinces Brodie exactly what they need to do.  And Quint, the poacher and fisherman — course, mean-tempered, essentially a salty old sailor — the perfect foil for the more normal Brodie and Hooper.

In the end, of course, Hooper disappears (but survives), Quint doesn’t, and Brodie manages to thrust a compressed air tank into the shark’s mouth and then blow it up by shooting it.  Instant sushi.

Still, an excellent movie with great characters and some really good acting.

Recommendation:  See it!  But not for the really young (I’d go 13 plus on this)
Rating:  4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Justice League Crisis on Two Earths

All That Jazz

  • Title:  All That Jazz
  • Director:  Bob Fosse
  • Date:  1979
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Cast:  Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, Erzebet Foldt, John Lithgow, Ben Vereen
  • Format:  Technicolor, Anamorphic Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

It’s Showtime!  — Joe Gideon

My second favorite musical (my favorite being Moulin Rouge (2001)). All That Jazz is truly one of those movies that gets better every time you see it, and as Roger Ebert once said — I can’t imagine never being able to see this film again. It’s good — and you notice more each time you see it. Or, at least I noticed more this time, and I’ve seen it half a dozen times.

All That Jazz is a fictional biopic about a choreographer who is falling apart from his excessive lifestyle — too much smoking, too much drinking, too much fooling around with women, and a life of nothing but work are wearing him down to a point of exhaustion. While preparing his new Broadway show, and cutting his film “The Stand-Up”, Joe Gideon’s life spirals out of control. He has an angina attack – and then things get really interesting, before the choreographer choreographs his own death.

But more than that is the way the film uses everything — music, dance, songs, little bits of Joe’s life, and interspersed throughout it all some very strange scenes with Jessica Lange as the Angel of  Death — to tell it’s story, make it a visual masterpiece. I cannot imagine this film in any other format – book, magazine spread, TV series – only the film format works, which is a high compliment to a film and a reason I highly, highly recommend it.

The film also references many other musical films – visually. And not in a “cutsy” way, but if you know the reference it adds to what’s being told and if you don’t – it doesn’t distract from it.  For example, the first fifteen minutes or so are A Chorus Line as Gideon chooses the cast for his new production from an open call (or “cattle call” as they are sometimes known). Then, as Gideon starts to prepare his show – it briefly brings to mind such “show within a show” films as 42nd Street or The Bandwagon.  However, where those films are solely about getting a Broadway production made — and the successful show is the end of the film, in All That Jazz, once Gideon develops an artistically pleasing but very adult production number — the film turns more to his complicated life and quickly to his complicated death. Then, while Gideon’s in hospital, a group of producers are sitting around discussing the life insurance policy on Gideon. Their cold, hard discussion determines that if Joe dies, the insurance pays off, and the show will make a profit — without opening. Remember The Producers?  That’s the original one by Mel Brooks starring Wilder and Mostel. Also, in the handful of quick numbers at the end as Gideon’s hallucinating in the hospital – includes a dance that’s a dead-ringer for a Busby Berkeley musical, including white feathers.

But, the film is NOT a parody of musicals — not by a long shot. It’s about Gideon, a choreographer, and his life, which is spiraling out of control. And despite the way he abuses himself with too much booze, smoking, fooling around, and driving himself at work, Gideon, as a protagonist is a fascinating man. Because we, the audience, don’t hate him. His behavior may at times be despicable – but we don’t hate him. Bit by bit Scheider’s portrayal of Gideon wins the audience over and we come to care about him. Gideon has a pre-teen daughter whom he loves very much. In fact, in my opinion, some of the best scenes in the film are between the two, especially when they are dancing together (he’s helping her with ballet and jazz dancing). His ex-wife, despite having left him because of his numerous affairs – still loves him. And his long-time girl-friend also loves him, and gets along fine with his ex-wife and daughter.  (Told you his life was complicated).

While working on his new production, Gideon has an angina attack. After the initial scare the doctors keep him in the hospital to try to get him to relax and calm down — Gideon, however, fools around, smokes, drinks, throws parties, and has his surgeons convinced he doesn’t care if he lives or dies.  Gradually, through his hallucinations – he comes to realize he wants to live – for his daughter.

However, that isn’t to be and in a final, triumphant number  we see the choreography of his death in a duet between Scheider and Ben Vereen — which becomes a major production number.  The first time I saw the film I was confused by the chorus girls in the white stocking outfits with the red and blue lines — the next time I saw it, I realized those were meant to suggest blood vessels.

 

This time around, I kinda’ wondered if either the suits on the Broadway production, or a conniving fellow director/choreographer (played to the chilling teeth by John Lithgow) actually arranged Gideon’s hospital “accident” that leads ultimately to his death.

Either way — the final production number is outstanding! And the mini-numbers leading up to it, with each of the important people in Gideon’s life trying to convince him to live are also outstanding. Bob Fosse’s direction throughout the film is brilliant, as is his choreography. And yes — the film is said to be a fictionalized version of Fosse’s life. It’s still brilliant.

Roy Scheider is also brilliant in this film – and actually looks his best in the production number at the end, when he’s performing his duet with Vereen. (Yes, he sings, and fairly well.  Not sure if it was dubbed – it doesn’t sound like it, Scheider’s New Jersey accent is still there.) And the dancing in that number is brilliant!

OK – and standard 1970s disclaimer here:  All That Jazz is an adult film with adult concepts, however that means it’s a film adults can enjoy without feeling it’s an insult to their intelligence. There is a lot of sex, smoking, drinking, swearing, drug use, and bare breasts — deal with it. For a film this brilliant, I’m not sweating it.

Recommendation:  I highly, highly, highly recommend this film.  If you’ve never seen it – rent it, give it a try, maybe even watch it a couple of times – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Rating:  5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Apartment

2010 The Year We Make Contact

  • Title:  2010 The Year We Make Contact
  • Director:  Peter Hyams
  • Date:  1984
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  SF
  • Actors:  Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Keir Dullea, Dana Elcar
  • Film Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  Dual-sided Standard/Widescreen
  • DVD Formats:  R1, NTSC

“My god, it’s full of  Stars!”
“What’s going to happen? / Something Wonderful.”

The common problem with older SF movies is often their anachronistic nature. It’s 2010 now  — I don’t see a mission to Mars, much less to Jupiter. It’s easier to ignore out-of-date fashions in a drama, than someone using a computer that looks like it came from Radio Shack 30 years ago. However, if the SF film is a space-fantasy like Star Wars or resembling a drama more than anything else, like 2010, sometimes little inconsistencies can be overlooked.

2010 The Year We Make Contact is a sequel to 2001 — but with a completely different look and feel.  It’s not weird, hard-to-follow, visually stunning but character poor like 2001. The plot is straight forward, in 1984, when I originally saw it, this film had drama and tension, and seemed incredibly realistic in a futuristic way.

Watching the film again in 2010 — things pop up that seem strange (like Schneider using a Word Processor with a lift-up 4-inch screen instead of a computer, laptop, or even an iPad.) And the cold war plot seems really, really strange and out of place. After all, the Soviet Union broke up, when, in the 90s? But Russia, will always be Russia — any country that managed to survive even a little bit under the Czars… But it was weird to see the Soviet flag on the Russian spaceship and on the Russian uniform. I mean, I don’t think I’ve even seen a picture of it in over 10 years.

However, about halfway through the film, the Cold War turns hot — messing up the join space mission considerably. And the answer to the survival of both crews turns out to be cooperation. Also, the end of  the film is fantastic and awe-inspiring! It makes the film worth watching, even with all the technical “problems” (more along the lines of “oh, come on — tech doesn’t work that way”). And HAL still seems chilling, and strangely advanced, compared to any other computer in the film, or what I’m typing on right now.

Scheider and Lithgow are both wonderful, as usual. Watch for them to team-up again (previously) in 1979’s All that Jazz. Scheider’s a magnetic actor — simply because he never seems to be acting. Lithgow can do just about anything — he melts into his characters extremely well. Helen Mirren, doing a passable Russian accent, manages to be less annoying than usual (she must have been pretty young here). Keir Dullea of 2001, makes a re-appearance. Dana Elcar plays a Russian diplomat of some sort, his exact title isn’t spelled out. But his Russian accent is terrible.

The plot of 2010 is considerably less complex than 2001 (which no matter how many times you see it always leaves one scratching their head, thinking, “Huh?”). Nine years after the mission of the Discovery went south rather spectacularly — the man who designed the mission (Scheider), the computer engineer who designed HAL, and an engineer (John Lithgow), hitch a ride on a Russian ship to Jupiter to investigate the monolith, figure out what went wrong on Discovery, fix HAL, and pretty much find some answers. And they do…  ultimately 2010 is satisfying as a film because it explains the loose ends left in 2001 and has it’s own plot of cooperation overcoming Cold War oppression and stupidity, that works. Some of the other issues in the film can be overlooked. And it also looks pretty good, so that’s helpful. That is, the special effects don’t look particularly dated.

Recommendation:  See it, after seeing 2001 and boning up on your 1980s culture and history.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars
Next Film:  42nd Street