“French Connection II” - John Frankenheimer (1975)


French Connection II (1975) is an American action-adventure film that was a followup to The French Connection (1971).  That earlier film was a huge commercial success and won US Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Though the sequel under discussion here, French Connection II, was also commercially successful, the overwhelming majority of viewers preferred  the first film.  But not me – I think French Connection II is the superior film. Admittedly, The French Connection was polished, entertaining, and had non-stop audiovisual  pyrotechnics, but it didn’t quite match some of the sublime passages of French Connection II. And, overall, even though The French Connection had a fascinatingly gritty surface, it lacked the existential delirium of its successor [1].

Both films feature an epic battle between New York Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) and the wealthy French drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), but they have different settings and, aside from Hackman and Rey, different casts.  The contrast between these two antagonists, particularly in French Connection II,  is striking: Charnier is upper-class, polished, and seems to have unlimited resources: while Doyle is lower-class, socially clumsy, and usually acts alone. The earlier film is primarily set in New York City, while French Connection II is set in Marseilles.  The viewer of the sequel does not really need to know anything about the earlier film.  The main thing is that Charnier got away at the end of that earlier story, and Popeye Doyle is still after him.

The story of French Connection II is divided into three almost equal-lengthed acts.  In fact these three acts are so distinct that they seem like three separate stories.  The real payoff comes in the last act; but, still, your appreciation of that last act has been setup by what has come earlier.

1.  Popeye Arrives in Marseilles
Detective Popeye Doyle, with his signature pork pie hat, arrives at the Marseilles police yard (“Hotel de Police Services Generaux”) and introduces himself to French Inspector Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), to whom he has been assigned to work under in order to hunt down drug mastermind Alain Charnier.  This first act is devoted to highlighting just how much Doyle is a fish out of water and how difficult it will be for him to make headway in this foreign setting.  Although Doyle is presumably a hardened professional concerning police activities, he seems naive and socially insecure on the interpersonal level.  Perhaps to compensate for his self-perceived limitations, he is aggressively rude and vulgar to anyone who doesn’t immediately accommodate him.  On top of that, he seems to have a slew of despicable racial and cultural prejudices.  Nevertheless, as the story proceeds, Doyle’s vulnerabilities and predominant genuineness draw the viewer as an existential passenger aboard Doyle’s tumultuous experiential train. Despite whatever misgivings we may have about Doyle’s character, we are empathetically drawn into Doyle’s world, despite ourselves, and this is what makes the entire story compelling.  Credit for this more alluring psychological ambience present in French Connection II, must probably be given to two key production figures who were not part of The French Connection – director John Frankenheimer and cinematographer Claude Renoir, who was the grandson of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and a nephew of Jean Renoir.

These early sequences of Popeye are intercut with some scenes showing an ocean liner in dry dock at the Marseille port.  An adjutant of Alain Charnier, Jacques (Philippe Léotard), watches the liner intently, and he later furtively passes a money bag to a Japanese ship officer associated with the liner.  Clearly these people are part of the drug operation that Doyle seeks to foil. 

To show the magnitude of just what the lone and alienated Doyle is up against, we soon see Charnier amiably discussing his operations with an American, who turns out to be a high-ranking US military officer.  So even important people inside the US military are part of Charnier’s criminal syndicate.

Also in this act, the contrast between Popeye Doyle and Inspector Henri Barthélémy as police operatives is highlighted.  While Barthélémy emphasizes due process, Doyle is reckless and risks human lives to capture a suspect.  This is shown in one scene of a police drug raid in which Doyle’s rash pursuit of someone fleeing the scene, but who was actually a police informer, led to that person’s death.  But that is the way Doyle operates: possible collateral damage doesn’t enter his mind.

Later during a long-distance phone conservation between Barthélémy and Doyle’s US-based superiors, it is revealed that Doyle sent to Marseilles without being told that he was to be used as bait to draw Charnier out in the open (so we see that disregard for collateral damage seems to be routine on the US police side). Barthélémy regards this as unethical but agrees to go along with it and assigns two of his men to secretively trail Doyle at all times in order to protect him.

Doyle’s isolation is further depicted as he is shown cruising around Marseilles looking for girls at bars and chatting with bartenders, all the while struggling with the fact that he cannot speak French and noone he encounters can speak English. In the course of these activities, he is surreptitiously spotted by Charnier.  When Doyle detects that he is being shadowed by French police, he gives them the slip and is then immediately captured by Charnier’s men.

2.  Popeye’s Torment
The narrative now moves to Act 2, and it seems like we have been transferred into a different movie.  The pace slows down, and Popeye’s world shrinks to his handcuffed confinement in a small flophouse hotel under the supervision of Charnier’s men. They want to know what he knows about Charnier’s operations, and in order to get him to talk, they give their prisoner daily injections of heroin in order to get him addicted. Then they will torture their prisoner by only offering him further injections if he spills the beans.  At first Doyle is defiant, but gradually he slips into a drug-induced haze.  He finally confesses that he knows nothing and that he was sent over to France simply because he was the only one who could recognize and idenetify Charnier.

There is one interesting red-herring vignette when an aged British lady comes to his room and consolingly speaks to him.  Finally, it seems,he has met someone who speaks English and appears to be sympathetic.  The viewer’s anticipation that she might help is soon crushed when it is revealed that she is also a heroin junkie and has only approached him in order to steal his watch.

Charnier’s gang finally give Doyle what should be a lethal dose of heroin and then dump him on the road. Barthélémy and his men quickly find Doyle and attend to his emergency circumstances by pumping his stomach and giving him cardiac arrest treatment. Afterwards, they choose to detox him by making him go “cold turkey”, instead of by gradual withdrawal. This agonizing detox period is shown for the next ten minutes of screen time and slows the film’s pace even more.  For some viewers this section of the film is too drawn out, but it does offer Gene Hackman a platform to give a bravura acting performance as he goes through his withdrawal symptoms in front of the patiently attending Barthélémy.  In particular there is a memorable seven-minute monologue during which Doyle tries to explain his interest in baseball and its arcane culture, including his early encounter with the legendary Mickey Mantle, to the uncomprehending Frenchman.  Any baseball fan will sympathize with Doyle’s frustration when his listener doesn’t even know what a southpaw is. 

Gradually Popeye recovers from the addiction and sets about rehabilitating himself in order to renew his struggle against Charnier.

3.  Popeye Takes Over
After the painful and dolorous 2nd act and now with Doyle back at full strength, the narrative pace is cranked up maximally for Act 3. Notions of due process now take a back seat to Popeye's impetuosity. This is where the film really comes into its own, but the previous two acts set things up for this final fever pitch to have its full effect. There are three high-tension episodes in this act that keep the relentless narrative momentum of this act rolling at a high speed:
  1. Torching the Flophouse
  2. Battle in the Dry Dock
  3. Busting the Drug Lab

3.1 Torching the Flophouse
The first such episode occurs when Popeye, now back out on the street, finally notices a sign that he recognizes is associated with the flophouse where he had been incarcerated.  He immediately gets a can of gasoline and torches the whole place.  This vengeful and impetuous action may have cost some lives of the inhabitants, but it flushes everyone out of the flophouse.  Popeye then savagely catches and beats a person that he recognizes fleeing the blaze and forces him to reveal the whereabouts of Charnier: he is at the ship dry dock seen at the beginning of the film.

3.2 Battle in the Dry Dock
The second episode follows on immediately when Popeye, Barthélémy, and some police rush over to the dry dock where Charnier’s gang is removing metal containers, presumably carrying drugs, that were welded to the ship’s hull.  When Charnier’s man, Jacques, notices the police sneaking up on them, a spectacular gunfight breaks out, with Jacques blazing away with a submachine gun.  Popeye and Barthélémy get trapped in the bottom of the dry dock, and the gang proceeds to open the floodgates in order to drown them.  Popeye and Barthélémy barely survive the battle, and Charnier gets away.
The next day Barthélémy is about to arrest the ship’s captain for complicity in the heroin trafficking when Popeye convinces Barthélémy to let the man go free. By surreptitiously tracking operations at the docked ship, he argues, they can trace a connection to Charnier.  By now Popeye is calling all the shots, and the hitherto more methodical Barthélémy is gradually adopting Popeye’s breakneck style.  Popeye’s philosophy of shoot first and ask questions later has taken over. When they trace another one of Jacques’s moneybag transfers to Charnier’s drug lab headquarters, the stage is set for the third episode.
3.3 Busting the Drug Lab
When they reach Charnier’s drug lab, they don’t block all the exits and lay siege to the place, demanding surrender. That would be too logical.  Instead they just burst through the door with guns blazing.  Again there seems to be a needless loss of lives by the police acting so recklessly.  And again Charnier slips away, but Popeye follows in hot pursuit.  We now come to the sublime final 7 minutes and 40 seconds of the film, when Popeye exhaustively chases after Charnier.  This passage is accompanied by oddly contemplative background music by Don Ellis (he also did the music for The French Connection) that further adds to the effect and makes the rivoting ending of the film almost surreal. 

Fernando Rey is very good in the role of Charnier, and even minor changes to his facial expressions often convey changes to his thinking while he is in conversation. Also effective is the performance of Bernard Fresson as Henri Barthélémy. But Gene Hackman’s performance as Popeye Doyle stands out above all, and his performance in this film was, in my opinion, the best of his stellar career.  It must have been extremely strenuous for him. There are many shots showing him maneuvering in perilous situations where his clear visibility indicates there was no double used [2]. He is the one who creates a character that connects those three disparate acts into a meaningful whole and makes those final minutes so memorable.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. A detailed comparison of the two films might be interesting, but I won’t pursue that topic here.
  2. Indeed those chase scenes inivolving Hackman must have been particulary strenuous for him, since he was suffering from a damaged knee  – see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073018/trivia.

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