French Connection II (US 1975)

'Popeye' Doyle arrives in Marseilles on April 1st  when the police are dealing with an April Fool joke – a fishy story?.

‘Popeye’ Doyle arrives in Marseilles on April 1st when the police are dealing with an April Fool joke – a fishy story?.

This sequel came out four years after the success of The French Connection. The only characters who carry over into the second film are the drug dealer Charnier (Fernando Rey) who escaped at the end of the first film and Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman), the New York cop who first uncovered Charnier. The follow-up was written by Alexander Jacobs and Robert Dillon, both with crime thriller experience, and they invented what might have happened if Popeye went to Marseilles. The director too is changed. John Frankenheimer was an important filmmaker in the 1960s and into the 1970s. He lived (and worked) in France for a period and he spoke French. Apart from film editor Tom Rolf and composer Don Ellis (repeating his stint from the first film), the cast and crew are French with the distinguished cinematographer Claude Renoir and set designer Jacques Saulnier as the most notable figures.

Frankenheimer offers an audio commentary on the DVD telling us that he was a big fan of the first film and that he wanted to keep to the same documentary-style approach to shooting the film. But then, as he explains what happened, it becomes apparent that the film is slightly different in style – and very different in terms of the story. The story is simple. Charnier is still operating out of Marseilles and Doyle arrives in the city, on his own, with the intention of finding the dealer and closing the case. Of course, he expects to be working with the local police. But they don’t seem particularly willing to help him and he doesn’t speak French. Early on we learn that Doyle may be being set up but we are never introduced to his superiors in New York and we don’t know how ‘official’ his investigation is. (Also, we don’t know why he hasn’t got his partner with him.) With his porkpie hat, Doyle is very visible and is soon kidnapped by the villains. What follows is a tour de force by Gene Hackman – a character study of a man under great pressure. Doyle is a boorish lout but also a committed investigator. When the local police Inspector finally sets out to help him, Doyle will still be able to deliver the goods.

In his commentary Frankenheimer speaks of his huge admiration for Hackman’s acting. He explains that Hackman is often seen in longer shots (i.e. Medium Long Shot or Long Shot) because to frame him in closer shots would mean losing his expressive use of his body. Because of these long shots – emphasised sometimes by the visible use of zoom lenses – Marseilles plays a similar but differentiated role as an extra ‘player’ compared to the part played by Brooklyn in the first film. Frankenheimer is a master of large scale crowd scenes and the chase sequences here are more like those in vintage Hitchcock than the more tightly-focused chases in Friedkin’s film. We do get the chases through the streets (with an athletic Hackman doing his own stunts), but also we see tiny figures framed in wide vistas of the harbour and sea-front. Overall, the combination of cinematography, set design and choreography of action is excellent. The heart of the film, however, is the focus on Popeye when he is held by the drugs gang – reminding us that Frankenheimer was the great director of men under pressure in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966).

In the first third and the last third of French Connection II, this does feel like a possible sequel to the first film, but in between it becomes something else. This is emphasised by a key decision. Whereas in the first film, the French dialogue between members of the drugs gang was subtitled, here there are no subtitles – we experience the world as Popeye does. French conversations are not translated and Popeye flounders in his attempts to question suspects (the Poughkeepsie joke survives from the first film and becomes even more surreal). This works very well when Popeye is told by the Police Commissioner (in French) to pack his bags. “Do I need to translate?” says the Inspector. Popeye shakes his head – he isn’t so dumb that he can’t ‘read’ intonation and facial expressions.

As I’ve argued many times, French and American crime films are often in dialogue with one another. Here, Popeye abuses French police officers, the French language, French culture generally and causes mayhem with his violent methods. But his hosts do accept that his loutish behaviour is accompanied by persistence, bravery and single-mindedness as well some good investigative skills. Most of all, they admire his vitality – not a bad representation of American-French cultural relations, perhaps?

The 2014 French film The Connection (La French) offers quite a different take on the original ‘true story’ – and on representations of Marseilles – review to follow.

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