By John H. Foote
John Frankenheimer was arguably the most underrated director in Hollywood through the sixties and seventies. His film Black Sunday (1977) remains among the finest movies ever made about international terrorism, and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) remains a seminal study of espionage and mind control.
After The French Connection (1971), directed by William Friedkin, won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director, the studio briefly considered a continuation of the story of a New York narcotics cop chasing a French drug cartel. But Friedkin was off to do something different, scoring again huge with The Exorcist (1973) and later with his remake of the classic French film The Wages Of Fear (1952), entitled Sorcerer (1977). He felt he had said everything he needed to say about Popeye Doyle, and refused to have anything to do with a sequel.
Oscar winner Gene Hackman was on-board when Frankenheimer was hired, pleased at once knowing the director would maintain the edgy, gritty look Friedkin had originated in the first film.
French Connection II sees Doyle (Hackman) sent to Paris to try and track down the leader of the drug cartel who escaped from his arrest in New York, the dapper gentleman Charnier (Fernando Rey). The French police are aware of Popeye’s reputation for going his own way and two “handlers” are assigned to keep an eye on him. A fish out water, Popeye does not speak the language and ordering a drink is a challenge. But he has a gift for reading people and it is not long before he is on Charnier’s trail. However, Charnier has spotted the New York cop on the beach and is very aware that Doyle has targeted him and he is being chased. Charnier decides to beat Popeye at his own game and kidnaps him, taking him to a barren warehouse where he interrogates him. Realizing Doyle will give him nothing, he injects the tough cop with heroin, addicting him to the powerful drug over a period of days. The French police look for Doyle, but with no luck and presume him missing or even dead.
Finally finished with Doyle, they dump him in front of the police station, now a hopeless heroin addict. Deciding that Doyle must go cold turkey to get clean, the French detective he befriended locks him in a room where the horrible withdrawal period begins. Doyle goes through the hell of withdrawal, screaming for a fix, wishing for death as his body screams in need for heroin. But gradually he comes clean, and though emotionally and physically exhausted, is ready to find Charnier.
There are those who believe French Connection II surpasses the first and is a better film. I do not believe that, but I do think Hackman surpasses his performance in that first film, with a deeper, driven and tortured performance here. He captures the harrowing nightmare of heroin withdrawal long before we knew much about it, and once clean he is even more driven to find the drug dealer, now knowing what heroin does to the user. He emerges from the withdrawal nightmare galvanized, now even more determined to bring Charnier down. Cocky, focused, even arrogant, he is like a lion stalking his prey in a superb performance. Sadly, though deserving, Hackman was not nominated for Best Actor, a snub that disappointed me then and now.
Frankenheimer keeps the film moving with non-stop action scenes until the extended sequence where Doyle is taken prisoner, addicted to heroin, and the scenes of his withdrawal. During those sequences he trusts his actor to carry the film and Hackman does not let him down. Once again Hackman brings a lived in quality to Doyle, a tough as nails New York cop willing to break the rules to bring in a bad guy.
Though educated, dapper, even charming, make no mistake, Charnier is a very bad man and Rey portrays him with just a hint of sinister qualities.
There are no great chases like that incredible car chase from the first film, and by 1975 realistic films were what audiences were used too. So as good as the sequel might have been, audiences had been there.
One of 1975’s best films, a worthy sequel to a great crime thriller with a towering performance from Gene Hackman.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.