12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957)

New York In The Movies #1 | The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971)

"One of the things we were trying to do is give you a different view of New York. All the aspects of New York, high and low. Really in many ways I felt this was a kind of crude poem to the city" 
- William Friedkin (Quoted in Sanders, 2013: 61)


William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971) is based on the true story of a drug-trafficking scheme wherein heroin was smuggled into the United States, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as the New York detectives trying to bring it down. Influenced by Z (Gavras, 1969), Friedkin realised he could take real events and stage them like a documentary in his own fictional film. Seedy, downtrodden and run down, The French Connection's depiction of New York is in-keeping with the political and cultural climate of the 1970s New York that the picture was released in. Many different environments are represented here, but what immediately comes to mind when one thinks about the film is no doubt the now iconic chase sequence. 

Wanting to differentiate it from the artificiality of the chase scene in Bullitt (Yates, 1970) a film which Freidkin was still nonetheless inspired by - he wanted to give a realistic portrait of New York, with crowds of innocent pedestrians and clogged up traffic occupying the streets rather than the comparatively clear roads of Bullitt's San Francisco. Friedkin had a brainwave whilst walking through Brooklyn and realised that, to make it more unique than a simple chase between two automobiles, why not have the car chasing an elevated subway. Rightly considered as the best scene of its kind in any film, it took five weeks to shoot and covered close to thirty blocks. Masterfully edited by Jerry Greenberg, the five minutes are unbearably suspenseful, and he alternates between POV and establishing shots that are crosscut with inserts of Gene Hackman's face, and as audience members we share his visible frustration at the different obstacles that are in his path. Stuntman Bill Hickman had the dangerous task of driving the car at speeds of over 90MPH (although they had Hackman drive when ever they could), and they had absolutely no permission to do what they were doing, the only approval they had was for the shots of the subway. What makes this whole chase so nerve-wracking, Roger Ebert writes - is that it's basically man versus machine, the subway train will never stop, but Hackman must dodge through the real people and vehicles in his path until you begin to wonder whether his desperation is going to lead him to run these people down to get to his objective. 

"The question I'm most asked in interviews about The French Connection, is how the chase was filmed. It was filmed one shot at a time, with a great deal of rehearsal, an enormous amount of advance planning, and a good deal of luck. But at least 50 percent of the effectiveness of the sequence comes from the sound and editing" - William Friedkin 



Friedkin does show us the other side of the city. The more classy and well-kept side with fancy shop-front window displays, elegant restaurants and iconic buildings, including the Rooservelt Hotel - seen when the detectives are following and staking out their targets. Given that arrests of low-lifes up to this point have been made in squalid habitats in the low income areas of the city, this serves to show us how much more organised and capable this new crime ring is compared to their usual suspects.  The conniving personality of the astute antagonist Charnier (Fernando Ray) is best shown when he and Hackman's "Popeye" are playing a game of cat-and-mouse on the subway platform, another anxiety riddled moment where the detective is trying his best to discretely tail him. 

The French Connection shows us the city with as much grainy realism as it does with its characters, including Gene Hackman's grizzled anti-hero. Going back to the aforementioned note of Friedkin's admiration for the film Z, the documentary feel of some of the scenes lies in the director's use of real locations rather than staged sets, in addition to his reluctance to advise camera operator Enrique Bravo on what was about to happen in a scene - "I let the camera crew go and find the action, as if it’s real”. 


References


Alleman, R. 2005. New York: The Movie Lover's Guide: The Ultimate Insider Tour of Movie New York (New York: Harper and Row Publishers)

Erbland, K. 2012. '33 Things We Learned From ‘The French Connection’ Commentary', Film School Rejects. [Online] Available at: https://filmschoolrejects.com/33-things-we-learned-from-the-french-connection-commentary-d3641bbd3038/


Friedkin, W. (2006) 'Anatomy of a Chase', Directors Guild of America [Online] Available at: https://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/0603-Fall-2006/Feature-Anatomy-of-a-Chase.aspx 

Sanders, J., 2013. Scenes from The City: Filmmaking in New York. New York: Rizzoli Int Publications.

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'New York In The Movies' is a tribute to of some of the best pictures that have been filmed within famous city. There are several great books that cover this topic, without a doubt the most comprehensive being: Scenes From The City: Filmmaking In New York, edited by James Sanders. In addition, the following websites are great for finding out the real-life filming locations of a number of movies: www.scoutingny.com, http://onthesetofnewyork.com and www.movie-locations.com. Photographer Chris Maloney has a wonderful Tumblr page where he juxtaposes pictures of film stills with their real life locations.

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