In the early 1970s, the Academy looked to the crime genre for their Oscar winners, and in 1971 ‘The French Connection’ beat off competition from such classics as ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’.
The film is a fast paced tale of two policeman played by Gene Hackman and Roy Schneider who investigate a drug deal in which Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) plans to sell $32 million worth of heroin to New York dealers. The plot twists and turns with unrelenting attitude until it ends in a fantastic showdown between the dealers and the police.
The film works in two ways. Firstly it’s a fun, exciting crime drama. Not only is the plot intense and exciting throughout, but it includes some wonderfully dramatic scenes, and so many of these are memorable. There is the famous car scene chase across New York. I am not usually one for lengthy pieces of action and feel that they can often ruin a good drama, but this adds to the tension so much. The other great scene that springs to mind is when Schneider is following Rey on a subway platform. For a while you wonder if Rey has spotted him, as they both hop on and off the train acting as inconspicuous as possible.
The other great thing about the film is the wonderful acting from the two leads. Hackman plays a bigoted alcoholic cop and Schneider is his more straightlaced and reserved partner. Unlike the traditional, modern cops and robbers film, the good guys are not perfect: they are normal people with normal faults. This makes them more interesting and believable and allows them to develop as real characters rather than just being parodies of heroes.
The relationship between the two characters is extraordinary. There are few films in which two male actors have as natural and unforced chemistry. Compare this relationship to, say, Frodo and Sam in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and you’ll see what I mean. They are both excellent.
On top of this, the film is excellent in other areas. It is technically superior to so many films of this genre. It is smoothly edited with camerawork that only adds to the intensity throughout. The music is equally tense, but not overused, and Friedkin’s direction uses both the music and the noises of the city in equal measure to create the required atmosphere.
What is great about this film is that it is not only a great piece of cinema but also totally accessible. Anyone who gives this film a chance will be drawn along by the fantastic performances and great storyline. And yes, despite the strong competition in 1971 I agree with the choice of the Academy for this year.