Although 1971's The French Connection has never been regarded as one of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences' most egregious Best Picture winners, 30 years of dingy pan-and-scan presentations on VHS tapes and UHF matinees have sullied the reputation of director William Friedkin's street-level police procedural. The primary revelation of this 30th-anniversary DVD edition is how colorful the film looks. Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman emphasize a documentary style—heavy on handheld cameras, with many shots and sequences "stolen" by hidden equipment, and operators without city permits—but they don't neglect the art direction. Narcotics detectives Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider do their legwork on the chilly gray sidewalks of collapsing New York neighborhoods, while mobsters and foreign drug smugglers escape the winter in warm, orange-hued supper clubs. The French Connection is about the array of subtle details, moreso than the straightforward cat-and-mouse plot, which has been diminished by competition from three decades of ever-grittier TV cop shows. In the sort of benefit that can only accrue over time, Friedkin's attention to what his characters eat, where they live, and what they wear paid off as the film became a vivid historical memoir of New York City's decay circa 1970. Friedkin's DVD commentary track clarifies that he was always more interested in the story's milieu than in the real-life events that inspired it. On a separate commentary track, Hackman and Scheider reveal the process by which they built a couple of violent, pigheaded bigots into rounded characters with virtues bound up in their flaws. A second disc contains two largely non-overlapping hourlong documentaries, one by the BBC and one by the Fox Movie Channel, about the true story behind The French Connection's drug bust and the production of the movie. But the purest document is still the actual film, which shifts from mundane to white-knuckle on a dime, with lengthy dialogue-free passages that stand with the best of "pure cinema." The penetrating depiction of the questionable character needed to successfully fight crime plays as well on DVD as it must have upon its theatrical release.
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