Tag Archives: The French Connection

Charley Varrick (1973)

This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Charley Varrick. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.

Charley Varrick is one lucky guy. Odd, maybe, to associate “luck” with a man who botches a robbery and gets his wife killed, and odder still once he discovers that the money he does get away with belongs to the ruthless Mafia. Over the course of Charley Varrick poor Charley buries his wife, runs from the police, runs from the Mafia, loses his partner, loses his house, loses his plane, and spends a heck of a lot of time contending with the incompetence of others. Traditionally we call the person in this string of situations “unlucky.”

Maybe we’re looking for luck because Varrick has Walter Matthau as its hero instead of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson or Gene Hackman, actors who led the ‘70s crime flicks Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and The French Connection and to whose characters Charley himself owes a great deal. These are the typical hardnosed and steely-eyed actors we might expect in Charley’s pulpy shoes. But Matthau, roundnosed and puppydog-eyed, was at the time more known for comedies and collaborations with Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder. Indeed Varrick marked a bit of a career detour for Matthau, who would continue to seek crime dramas like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the excellent Laughing Policeman throughout the mid-‘70s. In all of these gritty movies Matthau is lovable in spite of his occasional criminality, amusingly standoffish, honorable in an amongst-thieves sort of way.

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Baby Driver (2017)

baby2I recently watched Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz for the zillionth time. This was partly to assuage my excitement for Baby Driver, Wright’s latest, and partly because the discovery of a commentary track by Wright and his buddy Quentin Tarantino was too good to pass up. Usually commentary tracks feel slight, strained, straight-up unnecessary; Wright and Tarantino have a casual chat that’s nearly as bonkers as Hot Fuzz itself. The pair share a vast encyclopedic knowledge of film and music, and throughout the course of the commentary they discuss nearly 200 films — basically everything besides Hot Fuzz — and if you’re thinking someone should write out that list, well, yeah: reddit.

Their knowledge is enviable, yes, but it’s not nearly as enviable as the fact that both writer/directors manage to make movies that are unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Baby Driver, it should be stated at the outset, is unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Wright, like Tarantino, has fresh ideas that swing for the narrative fences, and like Tarantino he also has the prowess to actually achieve his vision. This time around the vision is something people are calling a “car chase musical”, which seems only half-accurate because it doesn’t quite do Baby Driver justice.

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Jailbreakers (1994)

You know Frank Miller, right? The comic book guy. No, you’re thinking of Alan Moore. Yeah, that’s right, the 300 guy. He’s done other stuff, though, far better stuff, like Sin City and Ronin and a fantastic run on Daredevil. He did the Daredevil book Born Again and the Batman books The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, all of which might legally be deemed works of genius. For a while he was one of the masters. Then, as so often happens with young artists who garner those labels — “genius” and “master” — Miller produced a string of decidedly less-than-masterful works that included the lukewarm Returns sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again and another Batman book called All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder; the latter is largely derided for the portrayal of Batman as a psychotic child-abuser, which is a new one. There are a few more stinkers, but they all get the pass in comparison to Miller’s latest book (ahem, “book”): Holy Terror. This is a story (ahem, “story”) so undercooked that it makes one wonder if Miller forgot to turn the oven on altogether. It’s somehow impossibly offensive and impossibly dull at the same time. Holy Terror is without a doubt Frank Miller’s most abominable creation, and unfortunately that’s saying something.

William Friedkin isn’t exactly the Frank Miller of film, but if he was, Jailbreakers would be his Holy Terror. The fact is that the Frank Miller of film is Frank Miller himself, who helmed his Sin City in 2005 and followed it with the increasingly awful The Spirit and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. But Friedkin, for a time, had a career in cinema that seemed to be following the hugely disappointing formula that Miller’s laid in comics. For an exhaustive breakdown of the early struggle, the well-earned rise, the questionable fall, the lull, and the eventual redemption of the director known as William Friedkin, I highly recommend this piece by Dissolve‘s Noel Murray. In fact, Dissolve‘s entire Career View column is highly recommended. In fact, Dissolve‘s entire catalog is highly recommended.

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French Connection II (1975)

On one hand, a sequel to The French Connection is completely logical. Popeye Doyle sees things through, probably more out of psychosis than out of any loyalty to law and order, and so it does make sense that he’d track the kingpin Alain Charnier all the way to Marseilles after the events of the first film. French Connection II begins right there, not long after the first film left off, and when he pulls up in a cab it’s pretty great to see Popeye again. He pulls his hat onto his head and pays the driver, then glares at him when the driver shakes his head and insists he’s owed more. “I’m taking your number, fella — that’s in case you screwed me,” he snarls. Yes: it’s Popeye.

On the other hand, though, a sequel to the perfectly imperfect conclusion of the first film seems simultaneously illogical. The first Connection ends somewhat suddenly when Popeye accidentally shoots a fellow cop, thinking him to be the evasive Charnier (or “Frog One”). Not only is a wishy-washy ending avoided, but Popeye’s character is further complicated by the brevity of his victory. The smarmy sarcastic wave that Popeye gives Frog One on the bridge is bittersweet, and maybe even a karmic contributor to the ultimate conclusion of Connection (in the same way that Hank’s wave to Walt in Breaking Bad represents his own short-lived supremacy).

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A Most Violent Year (2014)

A Most Violent Year is set in New York City in 1981, the most violent and murderous time in the history of the city. Oscar Isaac plays ambitious immigrant Abel Morales, manager of a successful oil enterprise, and Jessica Chastain plays his beautiful wife/accountant. On the eve of a major business deal, Abel must simultaneously contend with a federal investigation into his practice and a band of hijackers attacking his drivers.

Things fall apart fast for Abel, A Serious Man style, with pretty much everyone turning against him, and it’s in this set-up that A Most Violent Year seems like it’s going to be a pretty great gangster film. Abel is beaten down but never defeated, constantly levelheaded and rarely unprideful. In one scene he speaks to three new employees about business procedure, and though we know he should probably be frantically dealing with everything that’s happened to him in the past week we find him here instead, describing sales tactics with such gusto that Jordan Belfort would buy oil from him. In scenes like this Isaac’s Abel recalls Pacino’s Michael Corleone more fully than any character you care to name, stonefaced as he looks people directly in the eye, staunch in his beliefs.

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Rampage (1987)

Did you finish listening to Serial yet? No? If not, never fear — as beautifully maniacal as it would be to just insert Serial spoilers into random film reviews, there is in fact a higher purpose to my evoking the super-popular This American Life spinoff podcast. That purpose is twofold, and the first is to highly recommend Wesley Morris’s piece “Wrestling With the Truth: The True Crime of Foxcatcher and Serial” over at Grantland. Morris is about as good as it gets these days in film criticism. Also, here is our own, lesser review of Foxcatcher from the New York Film Festival.

The second purpose in bringing up Serial is to talk about movies like William Friedkin’s Rampage. There are a thousand movies like this. There’s a twisted, blood-drinking serial killer named Charles Reece on the loose at Christmas who breaks into people’s homes and kills entire families. He’s caught, eventually, and put on trial to receive the death penalty. The prosecutor, played by Michael Biehn, is a man of high morals. His fight to convict the killer is a fairly personal one, because flashes of his own wife and son keep cropping up in his mind every time he reviews the case at hand. If this sounds a lot like Manhunter, well, that’s because it’s a lot like Manhunter.

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Straw Dogs (1971)

A quick visit to good ol’ Wikipedia will let you know that Straw Dogs came out the same year as A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection and Dirty Harry, all of which were considered by the general public to be excessively violent films. Those other films undoubtedly have some rough sequences (especially the slap-happy home invasion of A Clockwork Orange), but Straw Dogs probably takes the cake for the most disturbing usage of violence in any movie of that era. Though Peckinpah had endured harsh criticisms for his portrayals of violence in his earlier films (especially The Wild Bunch), Straw Dogs would reach new heights (or new lows, depending on who you ask) with regards to what can and cannot be shown in a mainstream feature film.

Dustin Hoffman’s David and Susan George’s Amy have just started a quiet stint in the English countryside, during which David plans to finally get some work done and Amy plans to nag David and putter around looking for the cat. A few of the locals throw long and blatant gazes toward the leggy Amy, much to the subdued frustration of David. Eventually, the locals begin to test their limits toward the young couple – and eventually the gazing becomes staring, the staring becomes touching, the touching becomes harassment and the harassment becomes outright violence.

A long and complicated scene in which Amy is raped provided much of the fuel for the fire of controversy that ignited immediately upon release of Straw Dogs. There are actually two rapes back-to-back by two of the vicious locals, the first of whom is a man Amy knows and used to date. There is a sickening ambiguity to this first sequence in which Amy, initially resistant, seems to fight the event off less and less as it progresses. The promiscuity of her character throughout the film was also harshly criticized, which somehow morphed into a criticism of Peckinpah’s depiction of women in all of his films.

Regardless, it’s the second rape that many perceived to be the excessively brutal one. Amy very clearly resists and despises the occurrence, and while the second happening isn’t actually as graphic as the first Amy’s reaction is what makes the sequence so completely disturbing. This scene was immediately cut by studios prior to the film’s release and the uncut version was slapped with an X rating.

The paradox here lies in there fact that cutting the second sequence left that ambiguity of the first to sit and fester, with many audiences believing through the end of the movie that Amy had ultimately allowed the horrible event to occur. Studio muddling is a characteristic of nearly every Sam Peckinpah film, and fairly noticeable in his films from Major Dundee onwards. The reworking of Straw Dogs provided the ultimate irony not only by confusing audiences with last-minute editing, but by effectively highlighting the most disturbing portion of the film in an effort to lighten things up.

Still, whatever form you find Straw Dogs in will mark an important turning point in Peckinpah’s career. Violence on the Western front is one thing – Westerns by their nature are violent, set in seemingly lawless lands, populated by drifters with no names or backstories or ties to society. Peckinpah essentially takes these traits and plops them into a town in England to watch what happens. The local brutes – especially those played by Del Henney and Peter Vaughan – capture that Western-bandit quality of general disregard for societal structure and general desire for personal satisfaction no matter the cost.

Straw Dogs isn’t a Western. The ultimate message, though – or one interpretation of the film – may be that the setting matters little, the players involved matter little, the circumstances surrounding these particular players in this particular place matter little. Peckinpah’s mankind is prone to violence, will grow to wrest a violent tendency from the most unassuming of men, and Straw Dogs depicts this unpopular but unwavering philosophy in an important way.

Sorcerer (1977)

William Friedkin’s Sorcerer had the unfortunate timing in 1977 of being released concurrently with a movie called Star Wars, which people ended up liking a little bit. Friedkin was hot after releasing The French Connection and The Exorcist earlier in the decade, but Sorcerer ultimately failed at the box office and slipped into relative obscurity in favor of his other movies. This is a shame, because Sorcerer is a monster of a film.

Based on The Wages of Fear, the first third of the film essentially amounts to four separate prologues for four separate characters from Veracruz, Jerusalem, Paris, and New Jersey (one of these things is not like the other). Roy Scheider cashes in on the success of Jaws two years earlier as lead man in Sorcerer (the New Jersey one), but the time spent with each of the characters is intimate and highly involved; the Walon Green script, too, is like a tough steak that tastes good but has to be chewed and wrestled with. It’s difficult to tell throughout this opening act where Sorcerer might turn next.

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