The French Connection: Filmmakers Signature Series Review

The French Connection needs little introduction to film fans. Almost instantly hailed a classic upon its release in 1971, William Friedkin’s intense crime drama practically swept the Oscars in all the major categories and took home multiple Academy Awards. Gene Hackman gives a career-making performance as the hard-boiled narcotics detective, “Popeye” Doyle. The French Connection is so important to the history of film that it made AFI’s list of the 100 best movies of all time. Its style and direction influenced a whole generation of filmmakers in the 1970s, reinvigorating the crime drama for audiences.

The story is centered around an international smuggling ring, which is attempting to transport heroin worth millions from France to New York City. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are gritty New York detectives who notice something is up with a two-bit con, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco). Sal Boca is flashing massive amounts of money around town and Doyle starts tailing Boca on a hunch, hoping to ensnare the bigger players in what could be a huge narcotics operation that Doyle catches wind of from an informant. It all leads back to the Frenchman Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), a villain every bit the match for Doyle. Charnier is the mysterious criminal manipulating the entire enterprise behind the scenes, usually staying one step ahead of Doyle and the police.

Doyle is a morally corrupt cop, willing to twist the law or break some heads, in his quest to take down criminals as he sees fit. He was a shocking character to the audiences of 1971, which had not been exposed yet on the big screen to authority figures like policemen being portrayed in such a manner. The characterization will not be new to modern audiences, which due to this movie’s success has seen a multitude of corrupt cops in both movies and television. The French Connection’s overwhelming popular and critical success is primarily responsible for the grittier, more personalized style of filmmaking that swept across Hollywood in the 1970s.

Adapted from a nonfiction book, this crime drama is a tense thriller that owes much of its style to French New Wave cinema. The plot moves in a progression of cat-and-mouse games between the police and the smugglers, as the action gets more heated with each new development in the case. There are a couple of stunning set pieces to the film, most notably one of the most famous car sequences in film history, as Doyle recklessly drives a stolen car through the busy streets of New York City in pursuit of a criminal that has hijacked a subway car.

Better critics than myself have written endlessly on The French Connection and its importance to American cinema. Gene Hackman effortlessly creates a three-dimensional character that is more realistic than practically any cop before or since on celluloid. From the slick direction of William Friedkin to the stellar acting performances and taut script, it’s a movie that will stay with you long after the credits come up at the end.

Movie ★★★★★

The French Connection has a troubled history on Blu-ray, due to the notoriety and issues of the first release. That version featured a revisionist approach to the movie’s color palette alongside a host of other issues, supposedly under the guidance of William Friedkin without the original cinematographer’s input, Owen Roizman. The Internet quickly denounced the new transfer with its altered color timing. Fox has done the right thing for such an important piece of cinematic history, creating a brand-new high-definition master, this time under the direct supervision of Owen Roizman. The newly remastered transfer on this Signature Series edition is an unqualified success, that reproduces to a tee how the film first looked in 1971.

Running 103 minutes, the main feature is encoded in AVC at the very high level of 34 Mbps. Occasionally topping 40 Mbps, the compression is exemplary and retains every ounce of grain and detail from the new scan of the camera negative. The entire contents of this package are included on a BD-50. From a technical standpoint, Fox has done everything possible to replicate the transfer without error in 1080p. The film is presented in its native aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

The French Connection was filmed to reflect the seediness of its subject matter, the international drug trade on the backstreets of New York City. There are copious amounts of old-school grain, replete with a heavy contrast and dark black levels. This is not a pretty film and it was never meant to be pretty. The lack of intense high-frequency content and finer detail is largely a result of the softer cinematography. Thankfully the transfer has not been manipulated to any degree by filtering or obvious sharpening. What you get is a perfectly faithful rendering of the film, from the large swaths of grain to the nearly crushed scene inside the nightclub.

While no one will mistake The French Connection as a choice to use for demo material on Blu-ray, rest assure that the transfer on the Signature Series edition is a reference example of doing it the right way.

Video ★★★★★

There are two main audio options that fans will want to check out on this disc. The first one is a newer 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that has solid fidelity and above-average clarity for a film made in 1971. It’s not going to wow jaded home theater fanatics, but there is a bit of separation across the front soundstage and realistic gun sounds when fired. The audio elements show their age with some subtle, underlying hiss on the soundtrack, but it quickly becomes background noise that can be tuned out. There is a minor amount of surround ambience to the mix, largely in the club scenes and a few select other times.

Fox has also included the original mono soundtrack in Dolby Digital at 224 kbps, a welcome relief for film purists. It mostly keeps up with the newer surround remix, though the one channel limits the amount of punch and imaging it can provide. Subtitles include both English SDH and Spanish.

Audio ★★★☆☆

Fox has provided this Signature Series release with a surplus of special features, most of very high quality. It’s really an embarrassment of riches for the movie’s fans, almost all of it in HD. A 28-page collector’s booklet is included on the making of the film, including in-depth actor and director profiles.

Audio Commentary by William Friedkin – The revered director shares his personal insights on the film. It’s an older commentary originally created for the DVD release and he does tend to merely repeat the action on the screen at times, but there is still a lot of valuable anecdotes and background material in it.

Audio Commentary by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider – These commentaries were recorded separately, as Hackman talks over the first half while Scheider talks over the second half. They talk about background preparation for their respective roles and other aspects of acting.

Isolated Score – The isolated score has been provided in a Dolby Digital 5.1 option.

Trivia Track – Some facts and graphics presented during the film about the real case this movie was based on.

Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Director William Friedkin (12:12 in 1080p) – Several short scenes, with some intriguing ideas from Friedkin in his comments about the nature of film and images.

Anatomy Of A Chase (20:23 in 1080p) – Friedkin and producer Phil D’Antoni revisit locations from the famous car chase, discussing how it was staged and other aspects of the scene.

Hackman On Doyle (10:52 in 1080p) – Gene Hackman discusses the character in a brief featurette.

Friedkin And Grosso Remember The Real French Connection (19:16 in 1080p) – Sonny Grosso was the real cop from the original case that inspired the movie.

Scene Of The Crime (5:17 in 1080p) – A brief featurette detailing a critical scene in the movie.

Cop Jazz: The Music Of Don Ellis (10:07 in 1080p) – The film’s original score and its composer are examined in nice detail.

Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection (13:50 in 1080p) – A documentary comparing the French Connection to older film noir examples and how it relates to them.

Making the Connection: The Untold Stories Of The French Connection (56:35 in 480p) – Made for the Fox Movie Channel as a promo piece, Sonny Grosso’s involvement in both the original case and his work on the movie are examined in exhaustive detail.

Extras★★★★★

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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  • Christopher Zabel

    Current pressings of this edition include a classy slipcover.