Monday, March 09, 2009

French Connection II

I’m going to say something controversial:

William Friedkin directed ‘The French Connection’ and John Frankenheimer ‘French Connection II’ – it should have been the other way round.

Frankenheimer was at his best helming films where attention to detail was the key: the raison d’être for narrative and mise-en-scene. Please, before you haul me up against a wall, give me the kind of hiding that makes ‘The Sweeney’ look like the girl scouts and accuse me of picking my feet in Poughkeepsie – all of which I probably deserve for my two sins of (a) suggesting Friedkin shouldn’t have directed ‘The French Connection’ and (b) being a pretentious twat by using raison d’être and mise-en-scene in the same sentence – allow me to explain. Just give me one paragraph. That’s all I ask.

Okay. John Frankenheimer did his best work when close observation of a milieu and precise attention to detail were the watchwords of plot, narrative and aesthetic. Consider ‘The Train’, which I have described elsewhere in these pages as “a battle of wits between the two men, a game of forward thinking and low cunning, not unlike a chess match but with the French railway system as the board and a steam loco and a couple of dozen waggons for pieces. Frankenheimer's …talent for incorporating technical minutiae into the narrative - indeed, using it as the cornerstone of scenes of suspense - is pure genius.” Or ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, an exercise in documenting the logistics of a conspiracy – its planning and execution. Or atmosphere and routine of prison life in ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’. The procedural aspects of ‘The French Connection’ – surveillance, evidence, tailing suspects, putting the case together – would have seen Frankenheimer in his element. Friedkin, on the other hand, was renowned as a director who put his actors through the mill. Imagine his take on the cold turkey sequence which forms the centrepiece of ‘French Connection II’. Imagine the cultural clash element of the film shot through with Friedkin’s trademark sense of belligerence.

As it was, though, Friedkin directed the first film and made a classic. Frankenheimer helmed the second and, to be fair, came bloody close – the problem with ‘French Connection II’ is something no director could arguably have surmounted anyway.

The problem is the ending of the first film. Not only has Doyle shot a fellow cop, not only does the last frame of the film suggest he’s crossed the line between grimly determined policework and certifiably obsessional behaviour, but a closing credits title card informs us that Doyle and Russo were transferred out of narcotics and reassigned.

And yet the opening scene of the sequel has Doyle (Gene Hackman) happily – well, no, not happily: the man’s a total fucking grouch – arrive in Marseilles, on secondment to the local cops and hellbent on taking Charnier (Fernando Rey) down. Charnier, improbably living in the same house (after narrowly escaping a sting that sees the rest of his collaborators arrested, you’d think he’d have gone to ground), is still looking to corner the American market: in an undeveloped subplot, he’s seen making a deal with a corrupt US army officer.

Without Russo to provide double-act bantering possibilities, Doyle’s conversational imperative becomes a one-note exercise in how to offend his hosts (on national differences: “I’d rather be a lamp-post in New York than the President of France”; on the local cuisine: “What did you do, cremate it? Where’s the mayo?”). Meanwhile, the Marseilles PD prove more effective in putting a tail on Doyle than actually locating Charnier.

The first film was based on an actual case, Doyle and Russo prowling their home turf, knowing when something doesn’t add up, knowing when someone’s dirty. It’s immediate, edgy, gritty. The sequel – an entirely fictional work – squanders its first half on Doyle’s fish-out-of-water integration into a different city, a different country, a different culture. It’s only when Charnier’s men shanghai him and shoot him full of H that things get interesting.

The second half is one barnstorming set-piece after another: Doyle going cold turkey, the dry dock shoot-out, Doyle indulging in a little pyromania to flush out Charnier’s men, and a full-tilt exhausting chase scene (the car chase of the original here transmuting into something just as pounding but on foot) which climaxes in one of the most abrupt endings in mainstream film.

Ultimately though, I can only damn ‘French Connection II’ with faint praise: it’s a well-made and eminently watchable film that served no purpose in being made.

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