The French Connection
|by Dan Goldwasser
on February 16th, 2009
Based on the non-fiction novel about the famous "French Connection" drug trafficking scheme, William Friedkin's 1971 crime thriller is an instant classic. Gritty, unrelenting and at times shockingly honest, The French Connection won Academy Awards for Best Picture (the first R-rated film to do so), Best Actor (Gene Hackman as NYPD detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle), Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Pertaining to the smuggling of narcotics between France and NYC, we follow Doyle and his partner Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) as they dig deep into the back-alleys of the city and slowly uncover the smuggling scheme that ostensibly revolves around the French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).
Running less than two hours, the film has a solid pace to it, with story layers being peeled back like an onion. Doyle is not the most likable of characters, and his stubborn determination to get the bad guy starts to wear on his partner, slowly starting to blur the line of morality and what is right. The slightly ambiguous ending leaves the film open for the sequel, and the film features one of the best car chases of its time.
Released in 2001 as a 2-disc Special Edition DVD, The French Connection comes to Blu-ray with nearly all of the extras from that set, as well as some new ones. The visual transfer effectively reproduces the grainy and gritty look of the film, with plenty of detail revealed, but compared to the original DVD transfer (which seems to have had some noise reduction), there seems to be a bit of a "colder" feel to the color timing, with an almost slightly surreal, almost "colorized" quality. It looks good, but feels a little 'off'. All of this is intentional, as Friedkin explains in the supplements below. It creates a much colder tone to the film than I had seen previously.
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 note that they also included an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track, as well as the original English Mono track. It's a rather front-heavy soundtrack, and given the film's age, sounds limited to the effects of the era. But it's got a subtle use of surrounds (and a nice solid bass track) which adds a bit of rumble. In fact, they even include a D-Motion track for those "lucky few" who want to ride the movie.
For supplements, most of the extras from the DVD are included here. First up is an excellent commentary track by director William Friedkin, in which he talks about all of the various aspects of the production. A secondary "commentary" track is really two different audio talks with actors Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider (recorded separately), and each actor discusses their personal experiences with the film - very interesting stuff. New for the Blu-ray is a highly informative "Trivia Track" which talks about the production challenges, as well as the differences between the film version and the real "French Connection" smuggling case. The jazzy music score by Don Ellis is given the isolated score treatment (a very welcome feature that Fox Home Video has been doing lately), and replete with the take slates, it's enjoyable and sounds quite good, remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital - and sequenced in the manner that Ellis had intended (many cues were moved around in post-production). Finally, there is a new "William Friedkin Introduction to The French Connection" (HD, 1:15) on the disc, in which Friedkin welcomes you to the "best version" of the film, stating that this Blu-ray version is the definitive version of the film. I guess that explains the changes to the colors! (More on that below.)
The second disc carries over seven deleted scenes (HD, 10-minutes), with another new introduction by Friedkin, and optional commentary. Although in HD, the quality varies from terrible to decent, and the scenes are interesting but would have slowed the pace of the film down a bit. Also carried over are two documentaries. The 2000 BBC Documentary "The Poughkeepsie Shuffle" (SD 16x9, 54-minutes) is an excellent and comprehensive look at the film and the original story that inspired it. As if that weren't enough, we also have the second documentary, Fox Movie Channel's "Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of The French Connection" (SD 4x3, 56-minutes). Between these two documentaries, the commentaries and the trivia track, you'd think you know pretty much everything about The French Connection - but you'd be wrong. The Blu-ray edition now has even more material!
"Anatomy of a Chase" (HD, 20-minutes) is a great featurette hosted by Friedkin who 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" (HD, 11-minutes) is a new interview with Gene Hackman, talking about the character and challenges with the film. "Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection" (HD, 19-minutes) has Friedkin with real detective Sonny Grosso discussing the actual case that inspired the book and the film. "Scene of the Crime" (HD, 5-minutes) has Friedkin discussing the assistance that Jurgensen was able to provide with getting some of the key locations in the film, including closing the Brooklyn Bridge for filming.
"Color Timing The French Connection" (HD, 13-minutes) is a look at the new color-timing with Post Logic that was done for this Blu-ray release. Friedkin explains that this new Blu-ray version is what he had preferred all along, with a simulated 3-strip color + black & white layered process (like Moby Dick). So any issues that you might have with the look of the film is something to take up with Friedkin - it's what he wanted! They walk us through the process, showing how they did the color timing. Fascinating stuff, even if you disagree with what Friedkin did. "Cop Jazz: The Music of Don Ellis" (HD, 10-minutes) features film music historian Jon Burlingame discussing Ellis' dark and jazzy score. "Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection" (HD, 14-minutes) talks about the impact that The French Connection had on modern crime films, and its evolution from older classic noir films. Missing from the Blu-ray are the still galleries and theatrical trailers that had originally appeared on the DVD. A shame, since there certainly was room for them!
The French Connection is a classic Oscar-winning crime film that features stand-out performances, realistic action and situations, and one of the best chase scenes captured on film. It ushered in the era of gritty 1970's cop films, and while this new presentation on Blu-ray might leave some fans feeling uneasy, it's Friedkin's ultimate vision of the movie. The supplements are jam packed, and this is a must-own release.
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