There's an urgency to William Friedkin's 1971 crime-drama, The French Connection, that is almost palpable. This Oscar winning film pioneered the in-your-face approach that has become the visual style of choice in recent years, with everything from Michael Mann's "Miami Vice" to television series like "The Wire" and "Law & Order" employing the same techniques to emphasize the gritty nature of the subject matter. Now, with a controversial new HD transfer, Friedkin reinvents his film's nuanced look for a whole new generation.
Gene Hackman stars as Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, a rough-around-the-edges narcotics detective who has fallen out of favor with the brass after a series of botched investigations and petty busts. When Doyle happens upon a tip that could lead to one of the biggest heroin busts in the city's history, he, along with his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), pull out all the stops to make the collar, but, when their target turns out to be savvy French businessman, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), Doyle and Russo run into one brick wall after another trying to make their case. As he slowly loses the faith and support of the department, Doyle desperately tries to bring down Charnier and his American connections, but soon finds himself in their crosshairs. How far will one man go to make the bust of the century?
Grim and gritty doesn't even begin to describe The French Connection. This is one down and dirty film in which the line between hero and villain is blurred by greed, corruption, and ambition. Hackman's iconic Doyle is a despicable racist, a drunken lout, and overzealous to a fault. He's the prototypical anti-hero that would define that role for years to come, while Friedkin's equally iconic "car chase" sequence will forever be held as a benchmark for action cinema. If there's a film that more truly embodies the take-no-prisoners attitude of 1970's cop drama, I haven't seen it.
Personally supervised by William Friedkin, the new HD transfer of The French Connection is bound to confound (and, possibly, anger) fans. In one of the Blu-ray's many features, Friedkin explains that it was his intention to make the film look as gritty as possible without losing cinematographer, Owen Roizman's, distinct color palette and grimy aesthete. This has been achieved by various levels of oversaturation, added grain, and a process that involved running a color version of the film over a high contrast black and white version to achieve exceptionally inky blacks while retaining color vibrancy.
The results are a bit mixed, as much of the film's detail is lost to an almost relentless amount of buzzing grain and contrast issues. There are before and after examples of the remastering process in which the before scenes are noticeably sharper and more detailed than the final product, but the director felt that the new look was the version he wanted audiences to see. Personally, I find the added grain distracting, but the scenes in daylight (especially the scenes in France) look fantastic, with wonderful detail. In the end, I wish that both versions were offered so that we could make the decision as to which version best suited our tastes, but, alas, that is not the case.
The all new English 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack fares better, but, given the source, it should be no surprise that this isn't anything remotely resembling reference quality stuff. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and the film's sparse score is well realized. Spatial effects are limited to some gunplay and discrete effects, but most of the mix is presented "front of the house", as one should expect from a film from this era.
This two-disc set is absolutely loaded with extras, some of which are carryovers from previous releases (including a commentary featuring Hackman and the late Roy Scheider), but many new HD features are offered, as well! Disc one features the aforementioned cast commentary as well as a commentary from Friedkin, but the real meat of the set is saved for disc two, including:
o William Friedkin Discusses Deleted Scenes (HD)
o Featurette: Anatomy of a Chase (HD)
o Featurette: Gene Hackman on Popeye Doyle (HD)
o Featurette: Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection (HD)
o Featurette: Scene of the Crime (HD)
o Featurette: Color Timing The French Connection (HD)
o Featurette: Cop Jazz-The Music of Don Ellis (HD)
o Featurette: Rogue Cop-The Noir Connection (HD)
o BBC Documentary: The Poughkeepsie Shuffle
o Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of The French Connection
This is an astonishing collection of goodies. The HD features were a real surprise given that this is a "catalog title", so Fox really deserves some kudos for putting together such a fantastic set for what could have easily been just another port over from DVD.
The French Connection is amongst a handful of elite crime dramas, and, as such, deserves a spot in every fan of the genre's collection. While the controversial transfer doesn't wow as it should, it's not a dealbreaker, and it is more than made up for with the feature's worth of quality extras included in the set. Very highly recommended!