New York in the 1970s
It's mid-morning and Popeye is waking from a drunken slumber, pork-pie hat shielding his eyes from the week sunlight filter in through the bar windows. The radio has given way from music to commercials, and announcer says:
"Florida's Mackel Brothers invite you to join the great escape. You can say goodbye to air pollution, commuting, high prices, rising taxes, and cold, depressing winters [...]"
The contrast, as groggy Popeye makes his way from the dim bar to the cold grubby light of the Brooklyn day, is almost hilariously cruel.
New York, New York, What a Terrible Town
Friedkin never shies away from making sure a homeless person is sleeping just beyond Doyle, or that piece of litter blows across the shot. As viewers, it seems like we're never allowed to forget the fact that this crazy chase movie is unfolding in a stylized-but-gritty NYC.
This New York is the world that artists and investors alike say they miss, when an over-priced natural foods store opens up on the site of a warehouse, or an artisanal wild-boar restaurant appears where there was once only a laundromat. But as The French Connection shows, maybe time causes some kind of romantic amnesia.
The 70s was a moment of recession, the Vietnam War was unpopular and stretching out without a clear end, crime rates were high and New York itself was in a crisis of government corruption and budget shortages. An estimated 200,000 heroin addicts in New York used drugs that traveled from the Middle East through Marseille and out to Harlem, and Brooklyn neighborhoods, just as it did in the movie.
All that being said, Friedkin shoots the city with a definite reverence—you can tell that he hearts NY. He practices tilt-shots up famous skyscrapers like the Pan-Am building, and shoots low and with a distant focal point, like into Sal and Angie's candy store.
As the city rises and spreads, and the cops tail their targets through the busy city streets, we get slices of life. Often, Friedkin wouldn't even get a shooting permit, preferring the organic atmosphere to anything they could stock with eager extras in costumes.
Interested in what's happened to the Brooklyn corner where Popeye wore that Santa suit, or Ratner's Deli, where Sal and Angie had their post-nightclub, pre-work breakfast? Check out this Big Apple-centric website for location, location, location.
Marseille, France in the 1970s
You could be excused for not instantly knowing the context of the first scene of the movie, when Nicoli is followed by the French detective that he eventually shoots. (Dude's got a shooting habit.)
In fact, you could even be excused for not knowing the guy he shot was a detective. (We didn't, until we got our hands on the original script.) Sure, it's not necessary that you know all that, really, in order to plunge into the action. However, that baguette Nicoli plucks from the dead man's hands? That's how we know we're in France.
If we had any doubt, we have our French speakers later on, Charnier speaking to a dock boss. We're in France, and we're on the coast. We're in Marseille, the second largest city in the country, and in the seventies, the mid-point trafficking site for heroin moving west, courtesy Charnier's real-life counterparts. The city is host today to a major seaport, and at the time, criminals had a big slice of it.
NY Versus FR
Friedkin shoots the city itself a bit differently than he does New York, and that might be in part because of the pedestrian-only alleys and relatively short buildings. He goes for low-angles that accentuate the hills rising from sea-level, and wide shots that span several intersections at once.
Down by the Docks
Whether we're catching up with characters in the U.S. or France, the real dirty criminal activity seems to happen just steps from the ocean. We wonder whether this is a casual reminder that the Atlantic is the only boundary for drug-traffickers, or perhaps it's something more symbolic about the borders and margins of a city.
What do you think?