The French Connection is the next ‘classic matinee’ screening at HOME in Manchester (next Sunday at 12.00 and Wednesday at 13.30). The logic behind this presentation (and French Connection II a fortnight later) derives from the upcoming UK release of The Connection (France-Belgium 2014) based on the same ‘true crime’ story of major drug dealing in 1960s Marseilles as part of the movement of heroin to North America from Turkey. This 1971 feature deals with the successful seizure led by two NY narcotics cops of a large consignment of drugs smuggled into New York by a French criminal gang. It is based on a non-fiction account of the true crime with names and characters changed in Ernest Tidyman’s script.
The Movie Brats
I would suggest that there are three reasons why the The French Connection is an important film, deserving its ‘classic status’. First it is one of the most successful films produced by the so-called ‘Movie Brats’ in the early 1970s – commercially popular with audiences and critically lauded, winning five of the most important Oscars in 1972. Friedkin wasn’t named in the core group of Movie Brats and he didn’t have the film school training but like many of the younger directors in the 1950s he had entered the business as a young man and worked his way up through TV before moving into cinema films in the late 1960s when he was in his early thirties. This made him one of the older Brats alongside Francis Ford Coppola and I think the only other film by him that I’ve seen was his British picture, an adaptation of Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1969. He matched Coppola’s success with The Godfather films and The Conversation with this film and then The Exorcist in 1973. But, like Coppola, he suffered from the failure of his next couple of films, including Sorcerer, his remake of the classic Clouzot film The Wages of Fear. (Sorcerer came out in 1977 just after Star Wars and while Coppola was still working on Apocalypse Now.) The importance of the early films from the Movie Brats is that they formed part of the wider phenomenon of the ‘New Hollywood’ – the period between roughly 1965 and 1977 when the studios were losing power and new, younger directors were able to make more challenging films. In this sense two features of The French Connection stand out – its anti-hero, the thuggish but determined and focused narcotics cop ‘Popeye Doyle’, and the ‘street realism’ of the main setting in Brooklyn. These point to the second reason for the film’s importance.
There are several aspects of this move towards more realistic crime stories. It’s hard to imagine a character actor such as Gene Hackman playing the lead in a mainstream genre picture during the 1960s. When he won the Best Actor Oscar for this role Hackman was 42 years old. Yes, he’d twice been nominated as a Supporting Actor, (first in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967) but this was his first recognised ‘leading man’ success. What was also unusual about The French Connection‘s Oscar success was that it was classified as an ‘X’ in the UK (now ’18’). I’m not sure of the precise reasons for the classification in 1971 but watching the film now what is most shocking is the level of casual racism and sexism in the police force. I don’t think there are any significant speaking roles for women in the film. They are treated purely as appendages. Mainstream crime films had previously at least included girlfriends, wives, mothers – or the femme fatale – as speaking parts.
But if gender representations were skewed in this way, the streets of Brooklyn were shown in a style much closer to documentary authenticity. Not that this was necessarily the innovation that it has sometimes been claimed to be. In the late 1940s two producers in particular, Mark Hellinger and Louis de Rochemont began to make films ‘on the streets’. This seems to have independently of similar developments in Italy and the UK. One of the best films of this type was Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) which in turn inspired a legendary UK TV series in the 1950s. To get a sense of how different these films are to the ‘staged’ use of locations in Hitchcock’s films of the 1950s. The highlight of Friedkin’s film is, of course, the car chase under the elevated metro train which seems all too real. The attempt by an assassin to escape by metro is used in several French films and it is the ‘French connection’ which offers the third reason for the importance of Friedkin’s film.
France and America – partners in organised crime
The close relationship between Hollywood and French crime films is something explored in several posts on this blog. Hollywood even sometimes uses the French terms noir and policier – though not the uniquely French term polar to describe crime films more generally. Sometimes it seems like one-way traffic. French directors adapt American pulp crime novels or like Jean-Pierre Melville they pay hommage to American culture in different ways. A more recent example was the French adaptation of Harlan Coblen’s Tell No One (France 2006) French directors have also gone to the US to make their films (see the recent Blood Ties (US-France 2013). The French Connection actually begins with a short sequence in Marseilles in which we meet Fernando Rey as the local gang boss setting up the shipment to the US. Friedkin chooses to allow the French characters to actually speak French which is refreshing (though Rey’s Spanish-accented French had to be dubbed). French Connection II takes the story back to France since some of the gang escape.
Here’s Friedkin discussing shooting the film in ‘induced documentary’ style:
This was the first film I saw in Glasgow and a great way to start my festival viewing – with an intelligent and taut Italian crime film. Anime nere focuses on the ‘ndrangheta, the criminal families of Calabria in the deep south of Italy. The film begins on the waterfront in Amsterdam (which is not identified) where Luigi, one of three Carbone brothers is negotiating a major drugs deal with a Spanish group. Back on a mountain top near the Calabrian village of Africo, Luigi’s nephew Leo is fed up with his father Luciano who has opted out of crime to concentrate on the farm and his goats. Leo decides to head off on the long train journey north to Milan where he meets up with Luigi and the third brother, Rocco, the ‘accountant’ in the criminal business.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the narrative turns out to be the hot-headed Leo’s piece of minor vandalism carried out in his home village. It soon becomes clear that the Carbone’s rivals have just been looking for an excuse and a full-blown turf war is about to break out.
But it doesn’t – or at least not in the way that might be expected. This is more gangster as art film than gangster as The Godfather. Francesco Munzi’s film, based on a novel by Gioacchino Criaco is quite slow and it is deadly serious. Anyone who is a fan of the Italian TV crime series Inspector Montalbano will find this film both familiar but also disturbing. The connection is first via the actor who plays Rocco – Peppino Mazzotta – and who also plays Fazio, the Inspector’s ‘go to’ Lieutenant. But it’s also in the depiction of the desolate farms and abandoned villages of Sicily and Calabria. In the TV series it is played with some humour, but not here. There are several subtexts about the rural South and the sophisticated North and about the power of family ties and codes of honour – which of course are increasingly out of place in the global crime business.
The film doesn’t end as you might expect and throughout the violence is minimal with the worst bits off screen. But the tension is great throughout and you always expect something to happen. Vertigo are listed as UK distributors so I hope this gets into cinemas. Highly recommended if you are a fan of the European crime film – but give it a miss if you just like gunfights and sharp suits.
Titli is another important film in the gradual emergence of an ‘Independent Indian Cinema’. It represented the new strain of Indian cinema at Cannes this year and is still waiting for a release in India after festival screenings around the world. I was excited to see the film at the Leeds Festival – but disappointed in my quick scan of the audience around me by the absence of the local South Asian audience. We struggle to see Indian independents in UK cinemas and often they appear fleetingly in arthouse rather than multiplex cinemas. Titli is a debut (fiction feature) directorial outing for Kanu Behl, a graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film Institute in Kolkata. He himself is Punjabi and in the 1990s he grew up in Delhi with his parents – both actors, writers and directors. In 2007 he began an association with film festival workshops and Titli has been developed as part of a NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) Screenwriters’ Laboratory. Behl worked with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky!, Lucky Oye! in 2008 and Banerjee is the producer on Titli, making the film the first part of a partnership between his own production company and the mainstream production house Yash Raj Films – best known for Bollywood spectaculars. Banerjee is one of the leading figures in ‘Independent Hindi Cinema’ and took his place alongside Anurag Kashyap as a director on the compendium film project Bombay Talkies.
‘Titli’ means ‘Butterfly’ in Hindi and as a name for the lead character in the film, the youngest of three brothers, it is one of the reasons why he is teased and treated as naive. But Titli has plans to escape his all male family in a Delhi colony. While his elderly father (played by the director’s father) stays in the background, his two older brothers run a racket based on violent car-jackings in conjunction with a corrupt local police chief. Played by newcomer Shashank Arora, Titli is physically weaker, but, we suspect, a little brighter, than his brothers. The eldest brother Vikram, played by Ranvir Shorey (a comic actor in the other performances I’ve seen) is a terrifying brute here with the actor having piled on extra flab. Titli wants to escape and the rest of the family want enough capital to start a legitimate ‘cover’ business. But when the latest car-jacking goes wrong, losing everyone’s cash, Titli is chosen to be the means of recovery – by marrying him off to a young woman who could also be used in the family ‘business’. But the chosen bride (a suspiciously pretty young woman from a seemingly more established family) has plans of her own and she and Titli share a desire to escape. That’s enough spoilers. The script is well thought through and with good performances all round and lively camerawork, Titli is very successful. I’ve seen festival reviews which refer to violence ‘off-screen’ but I found that what was ‘on-screen’ was quite violent enough. I think that the preferred term for characters like Vikram is ‘a goon’ and he uses a hammer as a weapon of choice. This kind of violence is mainstream in India so I clench my teeth and sometimes close my eyes.
I want to recommend Omar’s review of the film on his new blog at Movie Mahal. He suggests that Titli marries the crime film and the traditional Hindi family melodrama – but of course here removes the mother figure. The new wife comes into an entirely masculine home (which production designers made even more claustrophobic by altering the rooms in the ‘on location’ dwelling). The second woman who exerts some external control over the family is Vikram’s divorced wife who demands her dues and causes further financial pressure. As well as this mixing of genres, Omar also notes the possible mixing of filming styles with elements of neo-realism feeding into the action sequences. I’ve seen references to improvised dialogue for many scenes and also the suggestion that the film was shot on 16mm to achieve a grittier feel. Neo-realism does move a narrative forward on the basis of simple but devastating problems associated with lack of money but what is important in Titli is perhaps that Titli the character is something of a fantasist/dreamer and that he has to recognise that he needs to become more realistic in his ambitions. His fantasies are based on the latest scam to involve India’s urban growth – the control of parking franchises in the new tower blocks seemingly rising everywhere in Delhi.
Films like Titli are conventional in the Western sense, i.e. they are recognisable as generic mixes which don’t utilise the specific conventions of the Bollywood (or Tamil/Telugu) masala film. There are no dance routines or ‘item girls’ but otherwise they are associated with the mainstream. I hope that the UK distribution arms of Yash Raj, Studio 18, UTV and Eros can get them into UK cinemas on a more consistent basis.
There is no reason why Blood Ties shouldn’t make perfect sense. The crime film or polar is a popular form in France and one of its principal features is an interest in American culture. Many polars have been based on hardboiled American pulp fiction, published in France alongside the French variety in ‘Serie Noire’ novels. French films – and indeed French crime fiction novels – have been re-imagined for the US market by Hollywood filmmakers and there is a history of French directors going to North America to make films in both French and English. The most recent high profile examples include the first of the Mesrine films about the French gangster (set mostly in Canada) and Bertrand Tavernier’s problematic production of the James Burke adaptation, In the Electric Mist (US 2009). (Blood Ties reminds me of Mesrine.) Why then does Blood Ties feel so odd? It might be because I’d read one negative review by Leslie Felperin in the Guardian and I was unconsciously looking for faults. But I kicked myself after the screening when I realised that this project of the actor-director Guillaume Canet was actually a re-make of the French film Les liens du sang (2008) which I’d not only seen but also written about. Doh!
The original film, based on a novel, Deux freres, un flic, un truand by Bruno and Michel Papet was based in Lyons in the early 1970s. That film was directed by Jacques Maillot and starred François Cluzet and Canet as the two brothers of the title, one a cop (Canet) and one a criminal (Cluzet). Canet and Cluzet had previously worked together on the very successful Tell No One (France 2006) based on a Harlan Coben novel. Canet decided on the remake to be made in English with the same story but set in New York in 1974. However this would still be a mainly French production. The main American creative input came from the writer-director James Gray, a friend of Canet, who was hired to co-write the script. Canet is clearly interested in American culture – and American popular music – so an English language film in America is not surprising. But why go for a period shoot with the resultant expense? IMDB suggests a budget of $25.5 million which is nearly up to Hollywood levels for this type of production. I suspect it was only viable because of the interest from various French TV channels. I can only assume that Canet wanted to get the feel of those New York policiers of the 1970s such as Serpico (1973). Certainly he searches for locations carefully. One film I was reminded of was Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, not a 1970s movie (it was made in 1997) but an evocation of the era.
The main problem in the film is the casting of Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as the criminal and the cop. They have no fraternal resemblance at all (nor to their father played by James Caan). Crudup looks like a perfect 1970s stereotype with a trim moustache and shaggy hair, whereas Owen looks like a leftover rocker from Coventry complete with leather jacket and tattoos. But the real problem is when they open their mouths. I’m no expert on New York accents but several critics have fingered Crudup for missing the mark. I don’t need any help to know that Clive Owen slides about all over the place. Now this isn’t to suggest that either actor puts in a bad performance. In fact they are both very good and after the first 30 minutes or so I began to enjoy the film quite a lot. My comment is really about Canet and his producers not having the nous to consider casting and script together. I suspect that Canet just doesn’t have the ‘ear’ for the nuances of English. That may be unfair, but something is amiss. Marion Cotillard (Canet’s partner) is cast as an Italian (I think that is right, but she might be Spanish – Monica seems the wrong name in any case) and her co-star from Rust and Bone, Matthias Schoenaerts plays the real bad guy in the narrative – with as far as I could hear, a very acceptable accent. (I should explain that ‘bad guy’ is a plot statement – the ‘good guys’ are actually horrific in terms of wiping out any opposition.) This is an excellent cast, with the further addition of Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, Noah Emmerich and a rather wasted Lili Taylor.
The idea of two brothers on different sides of the law is a familiar trope of crime films from the Hollywood studio era and from the polar. What is more unusual is the time devoted to the relationship between brothers and general family and police team background. The film has been criticised in North America because there is less ‘action’ and more melodrama and the action is supposedly not well choreographed or doesn’t use the correct CGI. It looked fine to me but my gripe would be that given potentially important roles for the four women in the cast, only Marion Cotillard really gets the chance to shine.
So, not perfect by any means but better than most Hollywood crime films of the same type and very much better than American Hustle in recreating the 1970s. It will probably disappear after the first week and come out on DVD pretty quickly, but if it comes to a screen near you it’s worth 125 minutes of your time.
The US trailer: