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review added: 9/21/01

The French Connection
Five Star Collection - 1971 (2001) - 20th Century Fox

review by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsTHX-certified

The French Connection: Five Star Collection

The French Connection I & II Box Set
2-film box set
Program Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A+

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
104 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 55:01, at the start of chapter 18), dual Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary track with director William Friedkin, audio commentary track with stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, theatrical trailer, THX Optimode test signals, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (32 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), French (DD mono), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Supplemental Materials
Approx. 121 mins, NR, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), dual Amaray keep case packaging, The Poughkeepsie Shuffle BBC documentary (16x9 enhanced), Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of The French Connection documentary, William Friedkin Discusses the Deleted Scenes from The French Connection featurette, 7 deleted scenes, still gallery, theatrical trailers (for The French Connection and The French Connection II), animated film-themed menu screens with music, languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none

Note: The French Connection: Five Star Collection will be available separately, or in a boxed set that also includes The French Connection II. The French Connection II will only be available in the boxed set.

"All right, Popeye's here!"

In the early '60s, New York special narcotics agents Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso stumbled onto a large-scale smuggling operation that was transporting heroin from France to New York. In 1962, after many, many months of surveillance and investigation, Egan and Grosso ended up breaking the case wide open and were ultimately responsible for the largest narcotics seizure to date, totaling $32 million. The French Connection is their story. While director William Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman had to make a few minor changes to the actual events of the case - mostly to compress time, and to add dramatic elements - the heart and soul of the actual events remain. Narcotics agents Egan and Grosso were always on-set as technical advisors to make sure that everything captured on film was as accurate as possible, from the tediousness of stakeouts, to actual conversations and lines dialog, to the way Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider portrayed them on the silver screen. And this level of detail shines through on the finished product and is what helps make this film so captivating.

Gene Hackman plays Popeye Doyle (Eddie Egan) and Roy Scheider plays his partner, Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Sonny Grosso). The partners are two very different people, but both have a passion for their jobs. Popeye is a tough, very intimidating cop, who will bend the rules now and then to get what he wants from the crooks on the street, be it a confession or inside information. Buddy, who is more levelheaded, tries to keep Popeye out of trouble, yet is always supportive of his partner's motivations. One evening while off-duty in a nightclub, Popeye and Buddy spot a suspicious man hanging out with known high-profile drug dealers and criminals. The detectives follow the suspicious man all night and all morning, and learn that his name is Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco). Suspecting that Boca is involved in trafficking drugs, Popeye and Buddy keep a close eye on him. During the on-going surveillance, Popeye and Buddy discover that a very large shipment of heroin will be coming into the country from France, courtesy of big time French drug distributor Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Boca is the connection in New York who will buy the heroine and then distribute it in America. After the French dealers arrive in the States, Popeye and Buddy spend almost every waking moment tracking their every move. And when the detectives get too close for comfort, Charnier and his wicked gun-toting henchman Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli) decide that their only chance for success lies in getting rid of Popeye and Buddy. The action grows intense as the detectives come progressively closer to bringing down the drug dealers, and the audience is witness to not only a couple of vicious gunfights, but also a car chase that is one of the most powerful ever committed to celluloid. By the time the film reaches its climax, it has effectively drawn the audience into the action so well, that even though the outcome of the film is known, one still watches with intense awe.

30 years later, The French Connection is still the purest, most honest films ever made about narcotics cops. This honesty is partially attributable to the close guidance of Egan and Grosso, but also in no small way to William Friedkin's incredibly unique vision and mentality as a young, aggressive filmmaker. Friedkin was known for his documentary films early in his career, and he brought with him to The French Connection that same level of objectivity and up-close, you-are-there sensibility. The camera work is largely hand-held and documentary-like, which gives the viewer a very distinct feeling that they are witnessing reality. Additionally, Friedkin made a conscious effort to film the seedy underbelly of New York City - a side of the city mostly unseen in films - to contribute to the film's unique, gritty attitude. Moreover, many of the shots in The French Connection were "stolen". And I don't mean that the same way I'd mean that Paul Thomas Anderson steals shots. More specifically, Friedkin and his crew would wander into the city, set-up their camera and just shoot without prior permission or filming permits. There are quite a few instances in the film where the actors are working right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of New York City life. Incredibly enough, in certain areas of the car chase scene, Gene Hackman and stuntman Bill Hickman were driving 90+ mph in the middle of actual New York traffic. As ballsy and dangerous as Friedkin could be in his younger days, his often cavalier approach to filmmaking contributed a great deal to the authenticity and intensity of The French Connection, and is one of the reasons he is one of America's great directors.

In my December 2000 interview with Friedkin, he mentioned that he was working with Fox on a DVD edition of The French Connection, and that it was "just beautiful." Well, I'm here to tell you, dear readers, that the man wasn't lying. I guarantee that you've never seen The French Connection looking this good. It's really stunning. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the source print used for this transfer is pristine - there are no annoying scratches or blemishes to speak of. The level of picture detail is unreal for a 30-year-old film, and the colors look to be exactly right - even considering the intentionally subdued palette. Black level is impressive, and the lack of highly distracting compression artifacting and edge enhancement is very welcome. The transfer does look grainy and somewhat murky, but that's all part and parcel with the original film elements and the director's intentions.

And it only gets better. The brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is equally amazing. The track is very active and always convincing. It can be just a tad bright and sibilant in a few areas, but that's understood given the age of the source elements. Nonetheless, dialog is always easily intelligible, and the rear channels are used liberally for ambiance and musical fill. Low frequency effects aren't quite as deep and prevalent as they would be in more recent films, but the low end is still ably represented. Overall, this is a wonderful 5.1 reworking that goes well with the brilliant new video transfer.

As the latest in Fox's premiere Five Star Collection, The French Connection is a two-disc set loaded to the gills with more than a few hour's worth of informative supplements. On the first disc, you'll find the film, the original theatrical trailer and two audio commentary tracks. The first track features director William Friedkin, as he discusses the history behind the film and what it was like shooting during one of the coldest winters in New York City. He also makes a point to draw attention to what in the film is factual, what was changed for the purposes of the film and how each change was different from the real scenario. The track is always interesting and Friedkin never lapses into long stretches of silence. This is a much more informative commentary than the rather boring track he did for The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen. The second commentary features stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Each man was recorded separately, and Hackman and Scheider only talk for about 15 or 20 minutes each. What they have to say is interesting, but the ideal situation would be to have them together, speaking for the entire length of the film. Concluding the supplements on the first disc are THX Optimode test signals that will help you calibrate your audio/video system.

The second disc is home to the rest of the supplements, and will take you a couple of hours to get through. But trust me - it's worth every minute of your time. The first and best feature here is the 50-minute BBC documentary, The Poughkeepsie Shuffle. Done by the same filmmakers responsible for the wonderful documentary on The Exorcist: 25th Anniversary Special Edition, The Poughkeepsie Shuffle is an in-depth look at not only the filming of the movie, but also the history behind the film. It's loaded with new interviews with Friedkin, Hackman, Scheider, Sonny Grosso and older interviews by Eddie Egan (who died in 1995). Fans of The French Connection will learn a lot from it. The next documentary, Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of The French Connection, is a 54-minute piece produced and hosted by Sonny Grosso that, while offering some of the same info as the BBC documentary, adds more information and detail to the history behind the film. A 17-minute featurette entitled William Friedkin Discusses the Deleted Scenes from The French Connection is exactly what it sounds like. The 7 deleted scenes (which also appear separately on the disc) are presented in this featurette with Friedkin introducing each scene, discussing its relevance to the film, and why he decided to cut it. Rounding out the supplements on the second disc are a still gallery and trailers for The French Connection and The French Connection II.

Winner of five Academy Awards (Best Picture 1971, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay), #70 on AFI's Top 100 list, and a groundbreaking film that launched a new era and style of filmmaking in Hollywood, The French Connection has finally come home to DVD… and in a very big way! Longtime fans of the film will, of course, be rushing to get their hands on this gem. But for you Gen X and Y film buffs, who might not have had a chance to experience it yet, absolutely don't miss this important piece of cinema history. This is a highly recommended DVD set that will keep you busy for hours while you're picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.

Greg Suarez
[email protected]

The French Connection: Five Star Collection

The French Connection I & II Box Set

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