William Friedkin peaked in 1971 with his thrilling crime drama, known for its show-stopping car chase, but elevated by so much more
The advantage of shooting on location is that fiction films can have the texture of a documentary, preserving forever a specific time and place before it inevitably evolves or devolves or take a form that will render it unrecognizable. There are caveats that go along with it, like the details of set-dressing or camerawork that reinforce a film-maker’s specific impression – or, in the case of a film like Taxi Driver, a reflection of a single character’s twisted point of view. But the fundamental fact is that the camera is in front of real buildings and street corners and often actual residents. And when there’s a director of William Friedkin’s caliber behind it, the backdrop has a three-dimensional vividness to it.
The street realism of The French Connection, perhaps the best film of Friedkin’s career, owes much to films like Gillo Pontocorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Costa-Gavras’s Z, both fact-based political thrillers that used documentary realism to assert their own authenticity. (Friedkin had said he was particularly influenced by the latter.) That’s obviously a deceptive gambit, since none of these films are actual documentaries and deviate from history at their pleasure. But The French Connection, now 50 years old, remains one of the great New York films because it feels so much like a seedy backlot tour through a city that no longer exists.