Saturday, September 29, 2012

French Connections: Directors and Narcotics

Another pass at screen-based communication: William Friedkin's The French Connection, from 1971. I have been traveling in recent days, and asked my seniors to gather in my absence to watch "a film" which I did not identify beforehand.

The French Connection won Best Picture (producer Phillip D'Antoni), Best Director (Friedkin) and Best Actor (Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle) Academy Awards in 1972. Roy Schieder, who played Doyle's partner Russo, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

The film tracks a story concerning heroin smuggling from Marseilles to New York. Doyle brings wild energy to tracking the smugglers, with tragic results.

I screened the film because it includes precious little dialogue. We track the action through shot sequences. It calls to mind French film, a doubling of the "connection."

And that car chase! Zero digital effects.

So here's the question, people: cops in gray, black and brown; four-door sedans; people following other people.

Why aren't I bored? Discuss.  


Carmi Cioni said...

The French Connection did not over-explain things. Whether through dialogue or the inclusion of shot-by-shot filming, many contemporary movies seem to concentrate their efforts on making sure that the viewer understands exactly what is happening. The French Connection made me work for it. I was even rather confused at times.
The balance between moments of calm and scenes with rapid movement combined with the film's overall rawness and changing camera angles kept me interested throughout.

Max T. said...

I appreciate this movie more and more each time I see it. Paying special attention to the structure of what each shot is doing helps me see part of why that is true.

The amount of story that is conveyed by how the camera is used is exceptional. In scenes where we have cops following bad guys, the camera may pass into a space where the viewer can be seen by the bad guy. When this happens the viewer knows that they and the cop that they're watching have been made, and a different cop is going to have to start tailing.

The simplicity of what's being shown really allows us as viewers to get involved in what's happening. In the car chase scene, instead of using those stylish over the wheel shots to show how far away on the road things are or using establishing shots to show the viewer everything that is going on at this intersection, camera is established as a sort of front of car POV. And with very little necessary work, the equation of what we pay attention to has been simplified to "close stuff=impending crash" The director gets out of the way and lets the viewer say, "dear god, we're about to crash"

Miki said...

Aside from it being at this point a terrific period piece (the clothing! the hair! the cars! the fake blood!), I noticed throughout how near/far shapes were used to focus our attention. This was achieved through contrast in scale and with lighting. Also, I noticed how each character was visually defined: Popeye with his porkpie hat and trench coat, his partner bareheaded, "Frog 1" with his rich overcoat and cane, etc.

The scenes were clearly defined/identified--I was given sufficient detail in each shot or sequence to know where I was or where I was headed. And I felt like I was right there in the scenes, watching the bad guys, chasing the metro train, sitting next to Popeye.

Cord Luehrman said...

The pacing of the film is perfect. I never felt like there was unnecessary action or "filler" scenes. The audience is given minimal information, but everything makes sense in the narrative. We're passengers in the car, just as pissed off as Doyle. We're standing outside the fancy restaurant freezing our toes off waiting for Frog 1 to make his next move. In a way, viewers of the film are just like Doyle and Russo, taking in the details of each shot and piecing them together to figure out what is going on.

Emily Fajardo said...

I found that the most gripping element of the cinematography in The French Connection was the thoughtful pacing of its incredibly concise shots. Even in the moments without dialogue or music to support them, all of the pictures that director of photography Owen Roizman orchestrated were dynamic and pointed enough to create a sense of very real urgency. We are never shown something we do not need to see in order to understand the story. Instead we are given all of the pieces of the narrative clearly and efficiently, without spending a moment to become frustrated or distracted by unused time. In this light, The French Connection is akin to a news reel with its clear-cut focus on the characters’ actions, and its striking implementation of hard-edged realism into storytelling.

Grace Preston said...

In light of the narrative assignment we are working on, I tried to pay close attention to the way objects and people were placed in the rectangle of the screen and the way these compositions helped tell the story. The point of view the director takes and the way things and characters are placed within the shot tells almost more of the story than the dialogue does, which is a little hard to get used to since I think most movies and TV shows try way too hard to ensure that everything that happens onscreen is made abundantly clear. Since so much of the storytelling is based in images and setting, the viewer is (hopefully) entertained without being able to pinpoint exactly why, since visual language is a lot more unconscious than verbal language.

Eyes Wide Open said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ariella said...

French Connection is such a success due to its incredible consideration for the viewer. The aspect of the film I appreciate most is the level of control it has over how much information the audience gathers at any given point in time—when to include the viewer in “inside information” and when to fully immerse us into the given scene. There is one moment in particular that illustrates this point of viewership quite clearly. When Doyle chases Alain into the subway, the audience only follows Doyle through the chase—unaware that Alain knows he’s being followed. Alain’s knowledge is only revealed after the hilarious back and forth of the two characters getting off and on the subway. Throughout this sequence, we as the audience assume Alain is innocently getting on and off the train, having to throw away trash etc. It is only with his final wave to Doyle through the closed doors that we understand the entirety of the scene.

Susie Kim said...

What really interested me about The French Connection is the entire composition of the shots that are concise, clear, yet visually compelling as if the director were designing a set of single shots instead of merely shooting scenes. Through out the movie, the angles of the camera were very straightforward, not employing rather dramatic or strange angle. But the formal composition of the shots is what makes each scene dynamic and the fast pacing of the shots also adds to building up the suspense of the chase.

Additionally, The French Connection "shows" its plot with the sequence of the images instead of telling it through heavy dialogues and narrative. Since the viewers do not get much verbal information from the start, they have to actively engage with the visual information presented in the movie to connect the dots, which I believe is also a significant factor to keep the viewers interested in the movie til the end.

Dan Shefelman said...

Why aren't you bored? Because Gene Hackman looks awesome in a pork-pie hat. Oh and he's a riveting actor.

Chris said...

The French Connection kept itself interesting by keeping the action simple and close to the viewer. It doesn't make heavy use of extreme camera angles and instead sets up scenes how someone might see it if they were there; the viewer is more immersed and doesn't treat it totally as fiction since they have some form of investment in the action.

The dialogue and action also contribute to this immersion. Nothing is overwraught and the film assumes the audience is intelligent enough to pick up on the entirety of the plot instead of explicitly stating and laying out all the things we need to know. It isn't so true to life that it becomes boring and drawn out, but it also isn't so fantastic that we dismiss it as something we could never be a part of.

Lauren K. said...

I really agree with what Carmi said about the movie refraining from over-explaining the storyline and consequent courses of action. By withholding information from the viewer, the director allows us to experience the unfolding of every scene along with the characters. Someone already mentioned this scene in a previous comment, but the scene in the subway where Charnier and Popeye play a game of cat-and-mouse on the platform was my absolute favorite. It doesn’t become clear until the very end of the scene that Charnier has been aware of Popeye the whole time. While it still would have been a humorous scene if we had been wise to that fact, it would have more closely resembled something out of a slapstick film, being entirely lacking in the subtle build-up of ridiculousness that makes the climax of the scene where Charnier waves at Popeye from the moving train so excellent. The indeterminate pace of the film gives it a sense of realism. As in real life, events reveal themselves to us, we aren’t told the entire scene before it happens. Consequentially, we need to remain at the edge of our seat in order to follow the action at all.

Kim F said...

As crotchety and old lady-ish as this sounds, I don't usually like action or cop movies, because they're really hard to follow. I can't tell the male characters apart and I lose track of fast-paced fight scenes with lots of frantic shifts in camera angle. However, I had a much easier time following The French Connection. Like Miki said, the characters each had features that made them distinct, like Doyle's bowler hat, our French baddie's cane and beard, and the chemist's really great tiny spectacles.

The plot seemed more straightforward than most movies - there were no off the wall twists and the funny parts still served the story. Each part followed logically from the previous. The film didn't seem like it was trying to be clever, as Doug might put it.

One thing I noticed the movie did well was translating pretty non-visual things into visible action. Particularly the scene that Cord mentioned, where Doyle's waiting outside a restaurant in the cold. The problem the shot solves is what you make your character do to show that he's freezing. He could complain out loud, but there's nobody around, and besides, that seems like cheating. I guess he could have shivered and rubbed his hands together. Although I can't remember exactly what happened, I remember thinking the sequence was really specific and original - I think he had a tiny cup of coffee, and spilled it. Can anyone remember what else happened in that scene?

Hanna said...

Can I be perfectly honest? I didn't like the movie very much. I admit it, I'm not a "movie" person so that may skew things a bit.

However, I wasn't bored. I got a little more interested near the middle. I think the movie was a little confusing in the beginning. I didn't know who the characters were and what they did. I don't even remember their names (however, I don't think they went around saying their names very much). It showed things by showing action instead of just talking about action.