The French Connection: Special Edition on DVD

Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony LoBianco, Marcel Bozzuffi. Directed by William Friedkin. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (widescreen anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0. Two discs. 104 minutes. 1971. Fox 2002065. R. $26.98.

Much has been written about William Friedkin's Academy Award–winning cop drama The French Connection—especially about the infamous car chase, heavily influenced by Steve McQueen's Bullitt. But what makes this true-to-life tale of how notorious New York cop Popeye Doyle and his partner brought down the world's biggest heroin syndicate so significant is the way it triggered a tectonic shift in American filmmaking in the 1970s.

Prior to The French Connection's release, studio films were falling quickly into cinematic constraints defined by formulaic and rehashed material. Friedkin, emblematic of a new breed of American filmmaker trying to escape studio bounds, drew inspiration from such French counterparts as Jean-Luc Godard, who wasproducing such revolutionary films as Alphaville. With Connection, Friedkin fully embraced the French New Wave movement, creating a film that broke all the traditional Hollywood rules. The handheld camerawork was in the intimate cinéma vérité style, protagonist Doyle was a flawed human and, indeed, a bigger scumbag than the "bad guys," and the script was principally improvised. When Friedkin won the Academy Award for Best Director, he officially shifted modern cinema toward his own gritty worldview, which now serves as the foundation for every modern cop film.

This two-disc set serves the same function as the recently released special edition of Citizen Kane: Its copious extras allow the viewer to visit or revisit a moment in filmmaking history. Priceless are the excellent commentaries by Friedkin, Hackman, and Roy Scheider—particularly Friedkin, who seems to relish analyzing his own work in fresh and insightful ways. And the typically vapid documentaries found in most special editions are here replaced by thoughtful pieces that focus primarily on the real-life stories that inspired the film: Making the Connection: The Untold Stories, and a BBC documentary, Poughkeepsie Shuffle. There are also theatrical trailers, a gallery of stills, and seven deleted scenes hosted by Friedkin.

But those looking for the crisp, super-saturated pictures found in some of the more recent cop flicks should look elsewhere; despite this transfer's freedom from edge enhancement and other compression byproducts, the source material itself is incredibly dark and grainy—attributable to Friedkin's raw cinematic style, which took advantage of natural light in bleak settings, and the technical limitations of the film stock of 30 years ago.

The sound is also a victim of the source material. Nevertheless, the mix is vivid during the action sequences. Of particular pleasure is the car chase, which comes alive in each channel, thanks primarily to Friedkin's close duplication of the intense blue-collar sound mixes John Frankenheimer had created for Grand Prix and would recapitulate, years later, for Ronin.

Overall, this special edition of The French Connection is a great way to celebrate the film's 30th anniversary, and should be recommended to any fan of cop thrillers or film history.