Tuesday, March 23, 2010

1971: The French Connection (William Friedkin)

1971: The French Connection (William Friedkin)
Easily the biggest influence on my first feature, The Last Lullaby.  I love the way this Friedkin film looks, and I love the way it sounds.  

Let's start with the look.  The cinematographer, Owen Roizman, has a pretty impressive body of work.  Aside from this marvel, he was also responsible for the look of The Exorcist, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Three Days of the Condor, Network, and Straight Time. What I love most about his work here is that it is both raw and painterly at the same time.  Usually I find movies that are gritty and raw not terribly pleasing on an aesthetic level.  And the films that I consider extremely refined on a visual level can often be a little distancing.  But here Friedkin and Roizman are able to combine, in a unique way, intimacy and painterly.  

As for its sound, the film mostly relies on ambient noises to propel it forward.  There is very little music.  And when music is used, it's usually between rather than during scenes.

I also love Friedkin's use of the zoom in the film.  And both the extended, wordless opening and abrupt ending continue to be references for me.  I still think this stands as one of the high points of Hollywood naturalism, and a tremendous hybrid of art and entertainment.  I would argue that much of Michael Mann's early style comes from this film.  And I would say that Friedkin's formal achievements here still tend to be a little undervalued.   

Other contenders for 1971: I still have several things I need to see from this year.  These include:  Roman Polanski's Macbeth, Grigori Kozintsev's King Lear, Claude Jutra's Mon oncle Antoine, Ken Russell's The Devils, Robert Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer, Jacques Rivette's Out 1, Jan Troell's The Emigrants, Jean Rouch's Petit a petit, Jacques Tati's Trafic, Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, and Barbara Loden's Wanda.  I need to re-watch Don Siegel's Dirty Harry as it's been to long since I've seen it to know where it'd place on this list. Meanwhile, from this year, I really like Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and Francois Truffaut's Two English Girls.  I love Alan Pakula's Klute. And my closest runner-up (and one of my other favorite films of all time) is Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  

7/27/11 I watched Claude Jutra's Mon oncle Antoine.  A strange, atonal coming of age flick that never fully connected with me.  

10/15/11 I watched Abel Ferrara's earliest short film, Nicky's Film.  It reminded me of a surreal recreation of the finale of Shoot the Piano Player.  Short and interesting

12/16/13 I watched Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge.  Nichols shoots it in a very artsy way that feels more under the spell of Antonioni or Bergman than any neorealist influence.   I found it too theatrical though rambling more than building towards anything. 

1/12/14 I watched Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout.  There is much to admire here - Roeg's cinematography is powerful and the two young actors very effective, and the opening sequence until the kids go off into the outback is among the strongest I have ever seen.  Emtionally however Roeg's sensibility eludes me at times, and I am left feeling more squeamish or confused than connected for the ride.  

4/30/16 I watched Stephen Frears' Gumshoe.  I am a big fan of Frears but this homage to noir lacks some of the heart of the director's greatest work.  His team is already strong, Menges and Andrew Lloyd Webber, but Frears spends so much time paying tribute that he makes it difficult for us to connect or fully identify when anyone up on screen.

11/11/16 I watched Jacques Rivette's Out 1.  With my biggest commitment yet to Rivette's cinema (it is over 720 minutes long), I am beginning if not to like him even more, at least to better understand his interests and style.  First his interests.  Rivette is fascinated by the process of being an artist and the steps by which one finds and makes its work.  He loves Paris, its architecture and infinitely picturesque locations.  He adores his actresses who seem to intrigue him more than his actors.  He likes communities.  In fact until now it hadn't occurred to me but the "13" plot line could certainly be read as a substitute for Cahiers and Rivette's yearning for a reformation of the gang.  As for style.  Rivette favors the long take, a handheld camera, and frames that allow the actors to roam both physically, and I suspect, emotionally.  Of course, much has already been written about Rivette's unique use of time and nowhere is it more evident than throughout the more than twelve hours of Out 1.  Rivette seems to possess if not a disdain then certainly an indifference to what is typically considered an acceptable duration for a film.  The same for his relationship to the conventional rules of narrative storytelling.  He rejects story arcs, traditional expectations of plot, and the entire concept of beginning, middle, and end.  Watching Out 1, I realize finally that it is not Godard but actually Rivette who is the most unconventional of all the Cahiers filmmakers; Godard's cinema plays within more known and accepted parameters of time and plot.  Rivette's cinema is challenging and frustrating because it defies convention and forces us into a space with very few recognizable cinematic landmarks to derive comfort from and cling to.  On the other hand, its importance, if one is willing to go with it, is that it opens up new directions for the medium, shining light on areas previously considered prerequisites for the filmmaker (a beginning, middle, and end; 150 minutes max) and proving there is still new cinematic language to write and uncharted cinematic territory to explore.    

1/8/17 I watched Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain.  Sci-fi is not my thing but this one is very impressive, from the sets to the acting to the tension Wise is able to create.  Very stylish and proof that Wise was not just a Hollywood hack.  He did after all make The Set-Up and The Day the Earth Stood Still, two films for which I have a great amount of respect.

1/22/18 I watched Maurice Pialat's La maison des bois.  It is very possible that within one of the cinema's greatest bodies of work this little seen seven part series for television is Pialat's greatest achievement.  It is certainly his most humanistic film and the work that most clearly grants him the title as Jean Renoir's closest French cinema successor.  All of it is remarkable, its characters, its Frenchness, its patience, its rigor.  And Pialat, time and time again, gives us moments that are so alive and so rich, and that surprisingly make us feel as if we are seeing them on film for the first time.    

12/1/18 I watched Elaine May's A New Leaf.  The first May film I have seen in its entirety, and it immediately made me want to go watch her entire filmography.  Her style is loose and modern while still feeling intimate and restrained (I know, some of those words seem to be in direct conflict with one another!)  Perhaps it's her ability to achieve such lived-in, natural performances from her actors that makes her work vibrate so or maybe it's the fact that she never feels to be following any known framework or genre.  Her output as director is limited, but if her debut film is any indication, it ranks up there with the highest shelf of American filmmaking in the seventies and that's no small statement.

3/29/20 I watched Blake Edwards' Wild Rovers.  There are some wonderful passages with a tremendous group of actors but it never fully worked for me.

4/1/20 I watched Jacques Rozier's Du Cote d'Orouet.  Rozier has a disciplined looseness that is in perfect sync with his nearly three hour trip to the beach.  He approaches time like Rivette, allowing his scenes to unfold in blocks that are far longer than most directors would allow for similar moments.  He is gifted with his actors and immerses the viewer in something that feels as close to documentary as fiction.  

1/1/22 I watched Mike Leigh's Bleak Moments.  The acting is extraordinary and Leigh seems to have incredible control of the canvas he has chosen.   Where his work becomes difficult is in understanding his perspective.  Is Leigh empathetic toward these struggling souls or does he simply know to draw them so well and then derive pleasure from making us laugh at their awkwardness or squirm at their shortfalls?

1/30/22 I watched Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore.  I'm still fairly new to Fassbinder's films; I've seen maybe four at most including this one.  Inspired by an interview I heard with Olivier Assayas saying that this influenced him I was excited to check it out.  

There's an energy in Fassbinder's cinema that's hard not to admire.  In this one, it almost seems as if Fassbinder wants to rip the medium apart, gut it of its first 75 years and find new directions and new truths for it to explore.  In this, he is not so different from Godard who he clearly looks up to, from the film's many parallels to Contempt to his decision to cast Eddie Constantine.  Yet, whereas Godard often supplements, even offsets his experimental side with breathtaking moments of visual and sonic beauty, Fassbinder seems unwilling to give the audience much to make them feel better about life or the world.    


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1971:

    The Last Picture Show (Bogdonovich; USA)


    Mon Oncle Antoine (Jutra; Canada)
    A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick; UK/USA)
    The Emigrants (Troell; Sweden)
    Blanche (Borowczyk; France)
    The Ceremony (Oshima; Japan)
    The Devils (Russell; UK)
    Fiddler on the Roof (Jewison; USA)
    Love (Makk; Hungary)
    McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman; USA)
    The Go-Between (Losey; UK)
    Mac Beth (Polanski; UK; France; USA)
    Murmur of the Heart (Malle; France)
    Pink Flamingos (Waters; USA)
    Third Part of the Night (Zulawski; Poland)
    Walkabout (Roeg; Australia)
    Straw Dogs (Peckinpah; USA)
    Harold and Maude (Ashby; USA)

    THE FRENCH CONNECTION s a solid thriller, but for me it doesn't figure onto any best list of this year, as I think I resented the fact that it won the Oscar in a year when Mssrs. Bogdonovich, Kubrick, Altoman, Jutra et al deserved the award far more. But hey, your love for the film here speaks volumes, and you also vow for its influence. No question Gene Hackman was really at the top of the game, and the chase sequences are electrifying.

    My own #1 choice, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, an elegiac drama set in a dying Texas town, is not only my favorite film of this year, but it's my #1 film of the 1970's and one of my most adored films of all-time. It's one I always gush over.

    But there are six or seven other truly great films this year.

  2. This is a great film filled such energy and vitality! I think this is due in large part to the restless, documentary-style hand-held camerawork that gives a you-are-there kind of feel to the film.

    There's also a fantastic amount of jaded cynicism that builds right up to the anti-climactic end of the film. Great stuff.

  3. A tough year. I'd have to say it's a tie between FRENCH CONNECTION and McCABE. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE DEVILS, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, STRAW DOGS, and WALKABOUT would be close behind. MACBETH is interesting because of the sheer volume of despair that permeates the film, Polanski's first after the murder of his wife. I like DIRTY HARRY and KLUTE a lot, but for me they're strictly second-tier in the context of this year and the seventies as a whole.

    I would argue that much of Michael Mann's early style comes from this film.

    Early like JERICHO MILE? Or more like THIEF? I'd be interested in hearing how you connect it to Mann since I generally see the greatest influence on Mann coming more from Schrader's AMERICAN GIGOLO. But you may be right when you factor in Friedkin's later work in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., which definitely seems to reside in the same universe as Mann's work.

    What I love most about his work here is that it is both raw and painterly at the same time.

    Last year's Blu-ray release of FRENCH CONNECTION was controversial because of Friedkin had revised the color timing on the film (without Roizman's involvement), making the film look a lot grainier and desaturated. Though I don't agree with his exclusion of Roizman, I think it actually works for the film and the story he is trying to tell, a rarity for me since I am usually reverential about preserving the original release of the film. Have you seen this version? If so, what are your thoughts?

  4. Sam, thanks so much for your great comments! I absolutely owe THE LAST PICTURE SHOW more viewings. It's one I've struggled with for some reason in the past, but I know it is much revered by many.

    From your list, I still need to see BLANCHE and THE CEREMONY. I like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE although a little less than the others I mentioned.

    Thanks, Sam. Always a treat to have your perspective here!

  5. JD, I couldn't agree more with your comments above! I particularly like this:

    "I think this is due in large part to the restless, documentary-style hand-held camerawork that gives a you-are-there kind of feel to the film."

    Thanks, JD. Always a treat to have you here!

  6. Tony, wow, great comments!

    When I made that statement about Mann, I was thinking more of THIEF, MANHUNTER, and HEAT (I think Mann's style made a pretty substantial shift starting with THE INSIDER). Probably because it was early and a TV movie, JERICHO MILE has never felt like a fully formed work to me.

    I see many connections between the two filmmakers -- the way that Mann uses natural sounds, the zoom, his indelible care for naturalistic locations, and his overall heightened naturalism. Both filmmakers approach the crime drama with documentary techniques to create something that manages to feel both real and surreal at the same time.

    Your statement about AMERICAN GIGOLO is very interesting. I've never made that connection, but now that you say it, I can certainly see it.

    Apparently, Mann's first choice for Lektor in MANHUNTER was Friedkin, which I've always thought was an interesting little tidbit.

    As for the Blu-ray release, I unfortunately haven't seen it. But thanks for letting me know. I'm definitely very curious to see the differences.

    Thanks, Tony. Always wonderful to hear from you!

  7. I really like The French Connection too, but it has to take a backseat to Robert Altman's great western MCCABE & MRS. MILLER. Such a great performance by Beatty and one of the few westerns that captures the grime and filth that must have really been what the west was like.

  8. Dave, this one is pretty much a toss-up for me because I truly love MCCABE, too. Thanks, Dave. Always great to hear from you!

  9. Jeffrey Goodman:

    "I see many connections between the two filmmakers -- the way that Mann uses natural sounds, the zoom, his indelible care for naturalistic locations, and his overall heightened naturalism. Both filmmakers approach the crime drama with documentary techniques to create something that manages to feel both real and surreal at the same time."

    I agree somewhat. When it came to the overall look of Mann's films - at least up to and including ALI, they are very stylized with certain scenes bathed in blue (see: MANHUNTER, HEAT and ALI) and even stylized action sequences (see the jump cut technique used in THIEF and MANHUNTER). It wasn't really until the bank heist scene in HEAT that you get a bit of a FRENCH CONNECTION vibe with the cameras being right there in the middle of the action.

    THE INSIDER and ALI are some of his most stylish works and are really a world away from anything in FRENCH CONNECTION but what's most interesting is that with Mann's interest with digital cameras, he's come back to the FRENCH CONNECTION verite style in a big way with MIAMI VICE and PUBLIC ENEMIES.

  10. For me, 1971 was one of the really great years, and it was a tough choice between The Last Picture Show, The Emigrants and McCabe and Mrs. Miller however, like Sam, I have to go with Bogdanovich’s classic. I love the B&W photography and the movie theater as a symbol of a town’s decay. This was a film that has resonated with me since I first saw it at the Columbia 1 & 2 theater.

    #1 The Last Picture Show

    Runner ups

    McCabe and Mrs Miller
    The Emigrants ( a film I wish was available of DVD)
    Straw Dogs
    Mon Oncle Antonio
    The Panic in Needle Park
    Murmur of the Heart
    A Clockwork Orange
    Harold and Maude
    Taking Off
    The French Connection

  11. JD, thanks so much for the great comments! I don't disagree that his later films (particularly the digital ones) have more of the F CONNECTION verite camera style. But in terms of sheer naturalism, I still feel a greater similarity between Mann's earlier work (THIEF, MANHUNTER, and HEAT) and the Friedkin film.

  12. John, thanks so much for the great comments! I still need to see THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK and TAKING OFF. And I like MURMUR OF THE HEART and HAROLD AND MAUDE although a little less than the ones I mention above.

    Thanks, John. Always great to have your perspective here!