It all begins with a plant. When possible, farmers in Turkey made more than drug companies were legally paying them for, so that they could sell it to the criminal underworld for some real money, the same cartels who then shipped those plants to France where chemists essentially distill an already potent paste into the the drug heroine. Of course I’m talking about the poppy, and this vibrant plant is merely the first thing that threads La French (released in 2014) with it’s predecessor The French Connection (released in 1971). Both films refer to the ubiquitous connection of distribution channels between France and the United States, spanning the decades from the 30’s to it’s height in the late 60’s (when The French Connection is set) into it’s blossoming decline that started in the early 70’s (when La French is set).
Of course there are other similarities between the two films, but first a brief description of each film beginning with:
Based on a non-fiction book published in 1969 and titled “The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy”, this film centers around two hardened cops “Popeye” Doyle & Buddy “Cloudy” Russo in the film and are played by Gene Hackman & Roy Scheider respectively. During the course of the film they uncover a conspiracy to smuggle heroine into the US by way of a French TV celebrity. Popeye has several run-ins with Alain Charnier, the mastermind of this little scheme resulting in one of the most unique chase scene in film, automobile vs. subway train. Since it’s a 70’s movie, after all the tricks have been played out, there’s one last foot chase between the intrepid partners and their slippery quarry. Will Popeye get his man, or get what’s coming to him for the extreme measures he’s taken to get results? Nominated for 8 Academy Awards in 1972, it won 5 of them (best picture, director, actor, adapted screenplay, and film editing). The film is also the first R-rated movie to ever win an Academy Award.
The story of The Connection -or- La French – centers around two real men, French judge Pierre Michel & crime lord Gaëtan ‘Tany’ Zampa, who butted heads in and around Marseilles, France while the French Connection was in operation. In the film, Michel is transferred from juvenile court to criminal court to help combat the rising violence of the criminal underworld which has started spilling from vendettas settled in private homes and backrooms to more open public massacres in open restaurants & clubs. Of course there are victories and setbacks to Michel’s efforts against crime, but after using some modern techniques of surveillance, and a growing support from France’s newly elected leader Francois Mitterrand, the tide against narcotics is turned for the better. I’m not going to spoil who survives, or if ‘Tany’ Zampa is brought to justice, but the journey in this case is it’s own reward. Director Cedric Jimenez is a native of Marseilles and grew up during the time period in question, right in the middle of events, so the film is very much an equal treatment of the Michel as law keeper and Zampa as the criminal kingpin.
So, what are the similarities between these films? Of course there’s the subject matter, but there are some other aspects they hold in common with each other.
-Both films are based on living people, not fictitious characters. (Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso in The French Connection & Pierre Michel and Gaëtan ‘Tany’ Zampain IN La French) Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso also served as technical advisers and on-screen roles in The French Connection.
-Both films were shot on physical film stock. (standard fare in case of The French Connection, but increasingly more rare for movies made today). I favor film myself, and would say that it adds an overall softness to the visuals and helps to accentuate the period of the film, especially if you’re making a movie today that’s set in the 70’s/80’s.
-Both films show much the same New York and Marseille, (lived in, bare, and dirty). You get an old world feeling to how characters using modern conveniences adjust the functionality of such modernity to places that weren’t built with those things in mind. Streets don’t accommodate parking and through traffic for automobiles so people park on the sidewalk instead. Courtyards carefully spaced for horse & carriage are lined with cars. Even buildings built with parking garages early on in the growth of the automobile becomes valet parking to handle the increased volume of demand.
-Both films feature the same French version of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” sung by the French siren Sheila (Annie Chancel), sadly more familiar to American audiences from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1 soundtrack as sung by Nancy Sinatra.
-Both films have a car chase, or in La French’s case several parts of a chase throughout the movie (automobile vs. motorcycle, automobile vs. automobile, and motorcycle vs. motorcycle). And let’s just say that two wheels win out over four in terms of effectiveness. “Popeye” Doyle’s chase of the slippery boss Alain Charnier is a huge reason to watch The French Connection in and of itself, and especially on the big screen. For example, during production on the film, the cinematographer (Owen Roizman) mounted a camera to the stunt car’s front bumper to get a low-angle view of Doyle careening through traffic, then made the action even faster by shooting the footage at 18 frames per second (played back at 24 frames in theaters) which further accentuates the road-rush of obstacles bursting at the audience.
However, with as many similarities as I’ve listed above there are differences:
-The French Connection is an English movie, whereas La French is a French language movie with subtitles.
-La French focus’ more on each of the central character’s family life. You get to see Michel’s wife take notice of his growing obsession with catching Zampa, explaining to his daughter when she’s teased at school because her dad is kicking the beehive, and consequently you witness Zampa buying a nightclub for his wife just because it makes her happy, and tearfully leave his family to run from the police and authorities once Michel’s efforts prove sucessful.
-Practical effects are more fluid in La French, whereas The French Connection is almost laughable with it’s R rating in it’s use of ketchup blood (although a more modern sensibility).
So, which do I like more? Well, while La French is well worth your time to seek it out and watch it, and as much as I support foreign film and the human automation to read subtitles, I could watch The French Connection over and over and over again. Early 70’s Gene Hackman, pre-Jaws Roy Scheider, and a New York that only exists for me on the silver screen. That’s what I’d pick. But who knows, you might like La French better than me. What I’m saying is check them out, if you got this far you might even like them both.
Some Meaty articles about La French for further digging:
Film Club 3.0 The French Connection screening (#123)
When he’s not driving to work, has his hands in his car and/or house, or is attending Film Club events as an #Awesome13 & #Sweet16 alum, Benjamin can be found listening to podcasts and hoping to start his own one day. Reformed Trekker; self-identified Anglophile; Anime fan by way of Akira, Ghibli, & Gundam; and admitted Yankee. You can find him on the Film Club Facebook page arguing about reserved seats & interpretation of recent Film Club screenings.