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Monday’s with Roy Scheider: The French Connection (1971)

Welcome back! Jumping from the 1960s to the 1970s is always a bit of a leap in the study of film history. While only ten years passed, the downfall of the Studio System means the cinema of the 1970s is far different than the work hitting theaters even five years before. It is with that change of aesthetic scenery in mind that we drop back into our Roy Scheider tribute with a look at the classic crime film: The French Connection.

The French Connection follows two police officers in New York (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider) who face an uphill battle in the struggle to take on a French drug smuggling ring during the early 1970s. Tony Lo Bianco, Fernando Rey and Marcel Bozzuffi co-star in the movie. William Friedkin directs from a script by Ernest Tidyman.

The French Connection is one of the earliest entries into the New York in Trouble sub-genre. The series of movies, which is best represented in works like Death Wish, The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three , Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver started in earnest in 1969 with the John Schlesinger directed Midnight Cowboy. While these (mostly) crime films aren’t related, they chart an important period in the city’s history. These works now function as historical artifacts depicting the urban decay of the once great metropolis. The glamour in movies like North by Northwest and Pillow Talk was quickly replaced by very visible images of poverty, drugs and extreme violence.

The French Connection hit theaters in the fall of 1971. We talked about Scheider’s feature film debut in 1964’s The Curse of the Living Corpse last week. He worked throughout the proceeding years, securing credits which brought him a growing popularity. Earlier in 1971, Scheider also appeared in Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid thriller Klute behind Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.

It’s a horse race to determine which of these films would be considered Scheider’s true breakout. Speaking honestly (because I do that!)… I prefer Klute. While Scheider is more entertaining to watch and far more colorful in the earlier movie, he’s very much a supporting player. He doesn’t have a heck of a lot to do. Sure, The French Connection is admittedly Gene Hackman’s movie, but Schieder (as Buddy Russo) is a steadying (and regular) supporting player… compared to his far smaller role in Klute.

As Russo, Scheider finds himself nestled neatly into the persona he would fall into for much of his career. He’s the “straight man” compared to Hackman’s more colorful (and challenging) “Popeye” Doyle. This is very much a constant for Scheider. In movies like Jaws, Marathon Man and The Seven-Ups, Scheider is tough, solid, dependable and very much a steadying force. An article in The Record out of Hackensack, New Jersey, dated October 8th, 1971 describes the characters in The French Connection. The quote also seems particularly relevant to the characters Scheider often played:

(They) are the kind of cops one sees on the streets but seldom see as leading characters in the movies. They are aggressive, often vulgar, easy to anger, prone to violence and work hard because they have little else to do in life…

This very definition, and to be honest, Scheider as a performer, feels completely at home in not only the 1970s, but the New Hollywood era. Towards the end of the 1960s, the glamour of the previous decades largely disappeared to be replaced by the grit and realism of this ‘New Wave’ of American cinema . Scheider never was a pretty, matinee idol. He was rough. He looks like he probably took a few punches in his day. In fact, his New York Times obituary credits this to a period working as a boxer in his youth. Through all this though, he also conveys a restrained (even a bit tired) intelligence which plays so well throughout the exhaustion of this decade. This in particular serves him well in The French Connection in which he draws a sharp contrast against the louder and more abrasive Hackman.

It is these two characters who pull us through the story. A lot hinges on these two men. The French Connection is certainly recognized as an essential thanks to these performances in conjunction with Friedkin’s direction. The movie was a force to be reckoned with at the Academy Awards. In a dominant year which saw classics like: A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, Carnal Knowledge, Klute and Summer of ’42 nominated for various awards, The French Connection not only received the most nominations, but took home the most awards. Hackman took home the Best Actor Oscar against stiff competition: namely Peter Finch, George C. Scott and Walter Matthau to name a few. Friedkin took home the Best Director award against names like Peter Bogdanovich and Stanley Kubrick. Meanwhile, Scheider received his first (of two) Academy Award nominations as Best Supporting Actor. Ben Johnson would take home that award in a field which included Jeff Bridges, Richard Jaeckel and Leonard Frey. When all was said and done, The French Connection took home five of its eight possible nominations.

The French Connection lives on in the pop culture memory as an essential of 1970s cinema. This is ‘New Hollywood’ at its biggest, brashest and most confident. It has such swagger. One certainly can’t discuss The French Connection without a mention of the film’s car chase sequence which many consider one of the best to ever be captured on celluloid. The sequence follows as Doyle commandeers a car in order to keep pace with a sniper who has ended up on one of New York’s famed elevated trains.

While the sequence doesn’t involve Scheider, the film’s recent 50th anniversary has brought the chase back into focus. Friedkin is quoted in an October interview with SlashFilm: ” As successful as the film was, I wouldn’t do that now. I had put people’s lives in danger”. The article goes on to describe how the scene was shot largely illegally. In fact, the shoot was reportedly so dangerous that Friedkin shot the sequence himself in place of the cameraman. Friedkin was a bachelor at the time while his cameraman had a family.

Ultimately, the biggest struggle for yours truly watching this movie comes in digesting The French Connection‘s story and script. There’s so much gritty tension injected into the work thanks to Friedkin’s chemistry with his actors, but I struggle to find any emotional investment in Tidyman’s script. The film was based on actual events surrounding a narcotics ring in New York during the tail end of the 1960s. However, with very few exceptions the subject at hand is overpowered by the dynamite work which comes across on screen. The crafting of the environment and performances leaves the narcotics feeling like little more than a maguffin. The drugs are there, but they are only an excuse to sink your teeth into these complex people in this vivid setting. While yes, this is also an Academy Award winning script, but I couldn’t help but need more.

There are select performers who feel inherently at home in a particular decade and with even a quick look at The French Connection, it’s so clear just why Roy Scheider’s career exploded in the early 1970s. Hollywood was evolving, the world was changing and a new generation of leading man was needed.

Come back next week for a dive into our first time watch of Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York (1975).

The French Connection is widely available as a rental.

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