21 April 2015

French Connection II

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One of the great mistakes in the history of film criticism is the prevailing view that French Connection II is a failed movie. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. In fact, John Frankenheimer's FC II is a masterpiece, and far superior to William Friedkin's grossly over-rated The French Connection. The interesting thing is, if TFC hadn't been so run-of-the-mill, FC II wouldn't have been so great. Just as Shakespeare gutted other authors' mediocre work and rewrote the muck into classics of the English language, Frankenheimer removed the only decent part of Friedkin's TFC, the character Popeye Doyle, a crank-kOOk NYPD narcotics detective (a showy Gene Hackman performance), and crafted one of film's greatest character studies in FC II. To explain how Frankenheimer did this, we must first look at TFC:

The French Connection (barely) told the story, in a fill-in-the-huge-gaps plot, of Popeye Doyle and his partner (played by the anorexic Roy Scheider) stumbling onto an international heroin smuggling operation run by a Frenchman named Alain Charnier (or, in Doyle's provincial vernacular, Frog 1). TFC has all the tired cliches we see in 21st century American cop/action movies: a renegade detective with a personnel file full of write-ups who alternately begs and brow-beats his lieutenant to convince him he's onto the Big One, and after finally getting the OK to work the case, he, of course, must work with the feds, who, of course, he butts heads with, and the resulting frustration of this, and his shitty life in general, drives him, of course, to drink and whore a lot, which, of course, his whiny partner disapproves of. The movie plods along with its head-scratching plot, broken-up with frequent fights and chases, until the final big shoot-out. The End (though TFC's end is an abrupt question mark).

It's not simply the case that 40 years of cop/action movies later TFC seems tired, trust me, the cop/action film genre was already tired back in 1971 when TFC was first released. And TFC's action was pretty inert by today's standards, excepting the famous car/elevated train chase, as most of the rest of the *action* consisted of Doyle and assorted other cops trying hard not to be spotted while following the heroin smugglers as they walked at a snail's pace through *the gritty mean streets* of New York. Anyway, what wasn't tired back in '71 was Hackman's star turn. Hackman took a cardboard cut-out cop character and breathed new life into it. Hackman was so hammy good, his Popeye relentless both in his violence and verbal tomfoolery, he tricked people into thinking TFC was a great movie. But trust me, it's not. I guarantee if you've never seen TFC, but you've heard it won the Academy Award and is supposedly an American classic, you'd be disappointed if you watched it today.

And as great as Hackman was in TFC, he was still just a one-trick pony, a porkpie Mad Hatter. There are only about 20 seconds of screen time when Popeye isn't drinking, fighting, chasing or cracking-wise. We see two quick shots of him staring at leggy young women in go-go boots, with this boot fetish being the only psychological depth to his character. . .

This leads us to:

French Connection II, in which John Frankenheimer asks, who the Hell is this crazy fucker Popeye Doyle? The answer he gave monumentally disappointed the critics. Why? Because Frankenhemier puts Popeye on trial in FC II, a I Corinthians 3:13 trial:

Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire, and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is.

Critic after critic wept bitter tears to see the great TFC's Popeye Doyle tried by fire in FC II. Here's a representative example of the critics anguish at Popeye's fate in FC II, from the late-this-time-not-so-great Roger Ebert:

Popeye was something unique among film characters, and Hackman deserved the Oscar he won for the performance in The French Connection. But whatever Popeye was, he wasn't a clown, and that's what he comes disturbingly close to looking like in French Connection II. . .Here's a guy whose competence, whose ability to function at a gut level, whose street instincts made him a new and original kind of movie cop. And now he's being used for comic relief and stripped of his dignity.

Total misreading of the movie and the character, because Ebert, like most of the critics, refused to believe Doyle could be anything other than the simplistic one-dimensional hero TFC painted him as. But he was a cartoon character in TFC, for crying out loud! It's not for nothing he was called Popeye!

In FC II, Frankenheimer shows us a *real* Popeye Doyle, *real* in the sense we are shown a psychologically valid character, and not just a cocky, demented, funnily unfunny robocop. . . 

How did FC II accomplish this?  Very early in FC II Popeye barks to a French cop I'd rather be a lamppost in New York than the President of France.  But that's precisely because Popeye was far more than a lamppost in his New York.  In his New York, the New York of the mythical *gritty mean streets,* Popeye was more than a President, he was the Law, and could do as he pleased.  In TFC, Popeye is a perpetual motion cop, unimpeded (excepting an occasional empty threat from his lieutenant) by any external force, free to exercise his own questionable judgment, and, if that questionable judgment resulted in a dead body or two, he nonetheless remained equally free to just stampede into the next crime scene, never having to stop and be questioned, and, more significantly, never having to stop and question himself.  But in FC II, Popeye is relocated to Marseilles, where he is not the Law. . .or even a lamppost.  Not allowed to carry a gun, and facing a language barrier that disarms his verbal violence, he's left naked and clueless at how to proceed.  By taking the one-dimensional Popeye of TFC out of his element, and placing him as a stranger in the strange land of Marseilles in FC II, Frankenheimer forces Popeye to slow down, and in one masterful, shattering segment, to come to a complete stop.  In FC II, we see Popeye alone with himself, and he's forced to do something we never see in TFC: examine himself.  FC II is Popeye's *dark night of the soul,* and it's as riveting an action film as has ever been shot, even though the action is almost all psychological.

One way in which FC II resembles TFC is in its thin, fill-in-the-gaps plot.  Popeye believes the NYPD sends him to Marseilles because he's the one guy who can identity Frog 1 (though it's eventually revealed it's the other way around, Popeye's been betrayed by the home team). The French cops, of course, don't want him around, and pack him off to a dirty corner next to the shitter.  Meanwhile, Frog 1 is working on another big heroin deal, this one somehow connected to the US military.  Frog 1, by chance, spots a forlorn Popeye killing time watching hot French girls in a beach volleyball game, and, of course, becomes alarmed.  Frog 1 has his goons kidnap Popeye, and in an attempt to discover what Popeye has learned (nothing) about his latest deal, gets the indefatigable hero of TFC strung out on heroin. . .which leads to:

French Connection II's infamous *intermission,* a 35 minute sequence in the middle of the film displaying, in often agonizing detail, Popeye's addiction and cold turkey recovery. Popeye, who had been a one man action movie unto himself in TFC, is now brought to a standstill, forced to face his own limitations.  The heroin breaks Popeye down, reducing him to an almost infantile state, weeping and crying out for help.  As he s-l-o-w-l-y recovers, he reveals just enough about his childhood and young adulthood to the French cop who nurses him back to health to let the viewer know he's been surveying his whole life.  

His trial by the fire of heroin reveals to Popeye his life and his work, neither of which look quite as grand in Marseilles as they did in New York.  It's a baptism-by-needle, from which Popeye emerges reborn, wiser about himself and the world around him.  He remains as relentless as ever in his pursuit of Charnier, but has had just enough of his rough edge smoothed away to be able to work with the French police, enabling him one last chance to chase down Frog 1.

And what a chase it is (actually, for all the moaning and groaning from critics about the pace of FC II, the movie never drags, and the action scenes are far superior to those of TFC), parts of it shot from Popeye's increasingly fevered point of view.  It seems like Popeye runs across half of Marseilles, chasing Frog 1's trolley car, then his yacht.  Popeye runs and runs, sweating, panting, grunting and groaning, his run turning into a trot, then a stumble, and then, on the point of collapse, he finally gets Frog 1 in his sights. . .and FC II comes to an even abrupter end than TFC

Hackman is even better in FC II than he was in TFC, as this Popeye is far more complex.  Popeye arrives in Marseilles a *hero* American cop, crashes to rock bottom, then pulls himself back up, in the process becoming a more genuine heroic character.  Hackman's portrayal of Popeye's psychological and physical rehabilitation is always completely believable.  

TFC featured New York's *gritty mean streets,* whereas FC II gives us ratty Marseilles, with the night scenes especially seedy, Marseilles seems to glow with the same kind of human ruin as Van Gogh's Night Cafe, a fitting setting for Popeye's heroin nightmare.

There is no question about it, the critics totally missed FC II. . .because they wanted another two hours of the Popeye of TFC, an invincible keystone kop.  Critics such as Ebert felt the Popeye character was betrayed by FC II's script (as Popeye in the script is betrayed by the NYPD), and they could not stand to see TFC's beloved hero reduced to tears of regret, as he is in the great cold turkey scene.  As for Ebert's charge Popeye is almost a clown, a figure of comic relief, if he is a clown, he is a sad clown, and the comic relief is always discomforting.  Frankenheimer has Popeye broken down in Marseilles so Popeye (and the viewer) can understand how empty he had become, just a 24/7 badge.  Popeye will leave Marseilles and return to New York as a healed man.  Thus, the historical negative critical assessment of FC II is juvenile, reflecting the childish awe and uncritical embrace of TFC's unthinking violence, which, of course, is a hallmark of the American character.  Though completely misunderstood in its native country, French Connection II is an American masterpiece. 
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