Can we talk for a moment about just how good John Frankenheimer’s 1975 movie French Connection IIis?
It did okay but not spectacular business on release but I feel like it has never received much love from critics and crime film fans alike, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it is a sequel and with few exceptions, like oft citedThe Godfather II (1974), we are always pretty meh about sequels, and rightly so.
Second, is the shadow of the 1971 original, The French Connection, which won a tonne of Oscars, including best picture, best actor for Gene Hackman as Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, and best director for the then wunderkind, William Friedkin, and is one of the most famous, if not the most famous American crime film of the 1970s.
Third, is the director, John Frankenheimer, who started his career strong with The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and The Train (1964 ), but with a few exceptions – 52 Pick-Up (1986), the nasty little film he did for Canon, and The Island of Dr Moreau (1996), which I know a lot of people hate on but I love – didn’t seem to do a whole lot else of particular note. It is a filmography I have always found hard to engage with and I probably need to make more effort.
I watched French Connection II maybe twenty years ago and came away pretty unimpressed. But all that changed on a recent re-watch.
Doyle, reprised by Hackman, turns up in the gritty French port city of Marseilles, several years after The French Connection. He has presumably spent the time since chasing down information about the French heroin trafficker, Alain Charnier aka ‘Frog One’ (Fernando Rey), who only just escaped at the end of the first film. The French police, particularly Doyle’s main police liaison, Barthelemy (Bernard Fresson) are rude and standoffish, give him a desk next to the toilet and tell him to his face that he is not wanted.
Barthelemy is particularly wary of Doyle for his role in killing other police (he accidently shoots and kills another cop at the end of the first film). And true to form, when the American accompanies the French police on a routine drug bust, Doyle ends up nearly getting an undercover police operative killed.
After that Doyle is left more or less to his own devices to wander around Marseilles. Cue various instances of cultural insensitivity as the hard drinking New York cop tries to make himself understood in the rough and tumble port city (French Connection II would make a great double feature with Ridley Scott’s 1989 film, Black Rain, starring Michael Douglas, on the theme of loose cannon dirtbag American cops adrift in touch foreign cities).
The depiction of Marseilles, by the way, is another of the film’s highlights. Frankenheimer had apparently been living in France for a number of years when he agreed to make French Connection II, and his familiarity with the terrain pays off big.
What Doyle doesn’t know, but we do via a phone call we see Barthelemy having with Popeye’s New York superiors, is that he has been sent over as bait to flush out Charnier. Indeed, before long, the heroin trafficker has picked up Doyle, stashed him to a decrepit hotel in the city’s old quarter, and has his men inject him with heroin in an effort to loosen his tongue and find out what he knows.
Content that the American doesn’t know anything of value about his operations, and with Doyle now a junkie, Charnier has his men dump him from a moving car in front of police headquarters. Going outside normal reporting channels, Barthelemy locks Doyle in a room in the basement of the headquarters and makes him go cold turkey, an extended scene in which Hackman does a lot of shouting and threshing about.
When I talked about this film recently on social media, a lot of people commented that this scene went too long, but I think it is essential to the film’s power. Seriously, you don’t kick a heroin habit, even a new one, in a matter of minutes. Also, how many major crime films, even in the 1970s, the era of the tough US crime film, turn the major talent into a heroin addict and then make him go cold turkey on the screen? None that I can think of.
Doyle eventually recovers and sets about locating the hotel he was held in. He burns it to the ground as the first stage of relentlessly pulling apart Charnier’s organisation and getting his revenge of the drug trafficker, which he does at the end of the film. For those if your who have not seen French Connection II, I won’t spoil it suffice to say the scene concerned is as forceful as it is brief.
All this is a very roundabout way of saying French Connection II is a neo noir tour de force and it is high time it got the recognition it derserves.