Sunday, August 17, 2014


It seems like anything I had ever heard or read about The French Connection is always centered on the film’s famous car chase scene. And straight up, it is a pretty great scene that still holds. Its unvarnished appeal and drawn out suspense give it this sense of realism often missing in today’s architecturally slick action sequences. But while the car chase scene hogs all of the critical attention, one thing is oft overlooked about The French Connection: It’s just a spectacular piece of entertainment, despite its shopworn composite parts made up of drugs, the fuzz and a bunch of bad dudes. This fact makes it a unique entry into the fraternity of Best Picture films. It isn’t some deep character study. It’s not some lush, period drama. It’s by and large devoid of any universal insight that shades the truth of human existence. No, it doesn’t retain any of the hallmarks of a typical Best Picture winning film. Frankly, it doesn’t give a royal rat’s ass either. Instead, it’s a smash-and-grab cop drama that isn’t seeking to cause a revolution in that genre, either. The liberation that comes through a clear-sense of self seems to benefit The French Connection because it puts the pedal to metal with supreme confidence, offering an unforgettable ride. 

Directed by William Friedkin, noted director behind The Exorcist, with Gene Hackman in the driver’s seat and Roy Scheider in the passenger’s seat, The French Connection revved up the Academy, which fueled the film with eight nominations. The French Connection would eventually drive off with a nice haul of five golden boys, including the Oscar for Best Picture in 1971. Its victory emerged from the pushing and shoving of a particularly competitive race that year, which also included A Clockwork Orange and Fiddler on the Roof both vying for the top honors. Incidentally, it became the first R-rated film to win Best Picture, with the recently installed rating now beginning to occupy space on movie posters. Apart from the big cheese, The French Connection also took home Oscars in several other top-tier categories, including Best Director and Best Actor for Hackman. While struggling with the envelope to extract the card with the Best Actor winner’s name on it, presenter Liza Minnelli breathlessly asked the audience, “Are you all as nervous as I am?” The answer is, Liza, of course not. We all knew Hackman’s name was on that card, and deservedly so. 

Adapted from Robin Moore’s non-fiction novel, The French Connection follows a Lincoln Continental lined with unusually pure heroin as it’s shipped from Marseilles to New York. Accompanying the car is Alain Charnier, a suave, sophisticated French criminal attempting to set up a deal to offload the heroin to the mob. Meanwhile, through a series of hunches and leads, New York narcotic detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and his partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo sniff out Charnier’s trail. But Charnier soon catches wise to his new shadow and flushes Popeye out into the open in a memorable cat-and-mouse subway sequence.

Later, after a frustrating stakeout of the drug-laced Lincoln Continental leads nowhere, Doyle impounds the car and tears it apart piece by piece convinced it is hosting a stash of drugs. After an exhaustive effort Doyle and his crew finally discover the heroin tucked away in the body of the car. Like a puzzle, they reassemble the car to its original condition and set a tail on it. Charnier eventually takes possession of the car, driving it out to a remote, abandoned factory where the exchange is made with members of the mob. Thinking he’s pulled off the deal, a grinning Charnier speeds off right into a roadblock with Doyle standing there at the helm. A foot chase between Charnier, Doyle and Russo ensues in a rotted out building, culminating with Doyle killing a federal agent, mistaking him to be Charnier. Fade to black. 

Many critics have noted the fact that character development is scant in The French Connection, with Doyle being the only figure who approaches anything beyond a singular dimension. While I would agree with this observation, I would also give shine to the idea that the city of New York, as those in the film know it, is an influential character in and of itself. Its grungy streets, seedy night spots and wasteland vacant lots exert a hardening force on each individual, shaping their character. This New York is not the New York of Annie Hall, The Apartment or Miracle on 34th St. This New York is frigid and unsympathetic, it’s callous and foul, unmoored by morality or humanity. It doesn’t play host to heroes. It doesn’t abide them. It doesn’t let them survive. Their nature is informed by this steely Bitch. It pours ice into their veins, making them not afraid to pull the trigger or pistol-whip a suspect for information. Therefore, the cops who make this New York their companion can never separate themselves from it. This New York has cursed them to operate on a wavelength that they can’t fully control.

As the film’s central character, Gene Hackman is aces when it comes to finding this wavelength and grooving right along it. He is neither a hero nor a villain. He has no apparent destiny. Like a hound, he’s picked up the scent of the case and is devoted to solving it because that’s what he does. One gets the impression that Doyle probably couldn’t care less about the drugs. His interests are exacted on nabbing Charnier because this would complete playing out some designated role handed out to him in this blighted world. The final scene highlights the extent to which this is true when Doyle accidentally shoots a federal officer also working the case. The wake of this tragedy only registers on Doyle’s radar as a source of frustration; disappointed that this guy got in the way, allowing the other guy to get away.

It’s a delight to watch Hackman grab this role by the throat and own it from the crown to the ground. There doesn’t exist a single ounce of hesitation in his performance as the pig-pie hat wearing, vulgar, stone-cold detective. Hackman excels at being able to generate a sense of unpredictability; a loose-cannon nature that is shaky as it rides the rails of a character’s determination. In Det. Doyle, Hackman has found the ideal sandbox for his talents to play in. 

Favorite Line: I’m going to break rank here and forgo a favorite line for a favorite moment that had no dialogue. At one point in the film, Doyle is pursuing Charnier through the crowded streets. Charnier enters a subway station, boards a train and then gets off at the last second, forcing Doyle back onto the platform in totally conspicuous manner. Charnier does this a second time just to toy with Doyle. But on the third time, he eludes Doyle and his boards the train, making his escape. As the train pulls away, Charnier gives Doyle a smug little smile and wave, rubbing his victory right in Doyle’s face.

The best moment of the film comes at the end after Charnier has collected his cash from the mob in the heroin deal. As he gleefully speeds off, his celebration comes to a screeching halt in front a police barricade with Doyle out in front, who returns the gesture to Charnier by giving him a smug little smile and a wave. Boom!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

PATTON - 1970

Before I launch into my review of Patton, I have a confession to make. Several years ago my sister purchased a copy of Patton on VHS for me as a Christmas present. Frankly, I was a little disappointed. It looked like a boring movie from the 1970s. And I felt like it was kind of a wasted Christmas present from a sister who normally knocks it out of the park. So I actually took it back and exchanged it for something else. I can’t even remember what I exchanged it for. But watching Patton and understanding what an incredible film it really is has unleashed a small measure of youthful guilt to bubble to the surface for this misdemeanor against good gift giving. I’m not one who can’t own up to their mistakes. So Kirsten if you’re reading this, a tip of the hat to you for your good taste that I’m now just catching up to.  

Anyway, if you have not previously seen Patton, and are therefore under the guise that it is just some Hollywood production of a WWII epic, you would find yourself in the company of a grievous mistake on par with a night of drunken partying with your boss’s daughter on the same beach where they filmed Jaws. Yes, yes, it is a colossal story set against the backdrop of WWII, but the real root cause animating the film’s epic nature is the character study of one helluva complex man: General George S. Patton. Throughout the course of watching the list of Best Picture winning films, a short list of performances stand out to me as being so monumental that it feels as though the actor bringing the character to life was wholly and completely destined to play that role. The few that immediately come to mind are Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur and Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons. To the top of this selection I would place George C. Scott for his performance as Patton. Scott is such a singular force on screen that his portrayal propels the entire film forward with a jet stream of prima donna hubris, a brilliant military mind, the tireless warrior’s appetite and a staunch patriotic sensibility. It’s the type of roll that would have easily bucked off other actors in possession of a legitimate talent. Yet, Scott rides this bull with such aplomb that he may as well be astride a calm mare on a Sunday ride through the park. To me, few things in life are as exhilarating to experience as when watching a film where actor and role are so seamlessly conjoined that the character seems to claim temporary reincarnation through the performance. 

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who is perhaps best known for directing the original entry into The Planet of the Apes franchise, Patton of course starred the inimitable George C. Scott. The film is not named Patton for nothing, as he is about the only figure to consistently appear on screen. The only other main character given any significant amount of screen time is General Omar Bradley, played by the always reliable Karl Malden. The film invaded the Oscar punditry’s columns and commentary with a towering 10 nominations, eventually taking home seven victories, including the Oscar for Best Picture in 1970. At any point, certainly in retrospect, it seems downright grotesque to consider any other scenario except one in which Scott is award the Oscar for Best Picture. But in the days, weeks leading up to the big night a victory for Scott became a passionately debated topic due to the revelation that he would refuse to accept the award, should he win. Opposing viewpoints on the matter set up encampments to debate why Scott should or shouldn’t be kept out of the winner’s circle that year. Citing contempt for the Academy’s voting rules and for artistic competition in general, Scott pulled a no-show at the ceremony that night, becoming the first actor to refuse the honor. Boom!

The film follows the career of General George S. Patton during the latter years of WWII, meandering through the various military campaigns he commanded throughout North African and Europe. Despite the fact that war is the engraved backdrop of the entire narrative, Patton is less a war film and more a character portrait of a brilliant, but flawed individual able to flourish under the cacophonies of battle. Patton conducts himself as though life were a stage and all the people merely players: He navigates every situation with a flamboyance girded by a sense of destiny; he devours every opportunity to deliver a rousing speech slathered with mustard and relish; he is constantly jockeying for the military spotlight. In short, he is a man with a slight God complex who views himself existing on a different plane, parallel to, but ultimately detached from the realm of time. 

Like all brilliant individuals, Patton proves to be his own worst enemy. His leviathan level of swagger is simultaneously his greatest asset and his Achilles’ heel. It fueled his talents for devising military strategy and for inspiring men to lose their fear in the face of the monster. Yet, this other-worldly sense of self generated an impatience for the diplomatic responsibilities associated with being a military leader, especially in an increasingly political world, which often served to remind Patton that he was a mere mortal. It’s a scenario that illustrates one of life’s more puzzling ironies that superior intellect often goes hand in hand with an inability to interact especially well with people existing outside of a narrow tract. In relation to Patton, the film highlights one famous example of this irony, where he is touring a hospital to visit those wounded in battle. In the hospital, he encounters a shell-shocked soldier who Patton accuses of simply being a coward, enraging him to the point where he assaults the soldier, threatening to shoot him. The incident derails his career, benching him from being a direct participant during the Allied invasion of Europe. 

In a particularly prescient observation, a Nazi researcher tasked with studying Patton’s character remarks to his superiors that the end of the war will mark the end of Patton because battle is what provides lifeblood to the man. If Patton the film is the portrait of an extraordinary personality, then this insight is the frame around its borders. The only thing that appears to await Patton in the wings of battle is loneliness. Outside of the military sphere, he seemingly has no personal life: no other interests, family or friends are mentioned. His closest confidantes are his aids, but those relationships are set to expire with the conclusion of the war. Patton clearly eats, sleeps and breathes military life, displaying an inexhaustible amount of knowledge in the field of military history. It’s the only thing that coaxes his interests out to play. This fact leaves one to feel that the film ultimately ends on a tragic note, as the final shot shows Patton walking off into a deserted horizon. It reinforces this notion that even the highest professional accomplishments seem to fade as they are incapable of filling the void within each individual.

This is in stark contrast to the film’s famous opening shot of Patton delivering an unapologetically bloodthirsty speech to his troops in front of a gargantuan-sized American flag. This scene is a wildly entertaining display of Scott’s ownership over the role of Patton. Scott’s ability to deliver vulgarity with a poet’s touch, coupled with his imposing stature, create this almost hypnotic charisma that draws you in to the point where you don’t feel you are watching performance anymore. Hell, by the end of the opening scene I wanted to go kick some Nazi ass. Simply put, Scott is just awesome to watch in the role of Patton. The director, Franklin Schaffner, was wise to let this film be a one-man show and not muck it up with irrelevant side-plots and supporting characters. Scott is more than equal to the task of carrying the entire picture by himself, which is apropos to the way Patton seemed to prefer things.

In reviews of Patton, there is a scant amount of ink highlighting how much Scott’s look added to enlivening the part. What a magnificent face for a role like this. The man slightly resembles an old wise bald eagle, complete with a steely stare that can see right through to your soul. His graying hair looks like a tuft of glorious feathers crowning a face chiseled by war and death. And his nose! What an incredible nose; mounted on that face like some sort of a prominent beak, bestowing him with grace and strength befitting an American general.  

In his review of Patton, the late Roger Ebert succinctly summed up what perhaps made Scott the perfect candidate to play Patton over other major Hollywood stars offered the role. “It is one of those sublime performances in which the personalities of the actor and the character are fulfilled in one another. … Scott was big, powerful, lonely, brilliant, a drinker, a perfectionist who stood so far outside Hollywood circles it was a foregone conclusion he would not turn up at the Academy Awards. In his career he sought out challenges like the plays of Shakespeare, O'Neill and Miller, in the same way Patton hungered for battle. Like Patton, he was a man without a purpose when he was offstage.” I concur Mr. Ebert. I concur, sir. 

Favorite Line: I’ve selected the entire opening speech because it contains too many great lines to choose from. But I’ve taken the liberty to bold some of the highlights in this worthwhile monologue. 

Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball player, the toughest boxer. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. 

Now, an Army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating.

We have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit and the best men in the world. You know, by God I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against. By God, I do. We’re not just going to shoot the bastards, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun bastards by the bushel.

Now, some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you'll chicken out under fire. Don't worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's face, you'll know what to do.

Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose and we're going to kick him in the ass. We're going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we're gonna go through him like crap through a goose.

There’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home. And you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what did you do in the great World War II, you won’t have to say, "Well, I shoveled shit in Louisiana." 

Alright now, you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel. Oh, and I will be 
proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle – anytime, anywhere.

That’s all.