Study Guide

The French Connection Production Design

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Production Design

Surveillance Noir

The dusty dimness of a New York winter? Check. Hand-held cameras? Check. Camera fastened to cars on ad-hoc rigs, or on shaky cranes? Check. High-speed film stock to capture every bump and bruise? Check.

This movie was made to look realer-than-real, as the characters run up and down the streets of a long-gone era of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Jersey, and Friedkin seems to play with this sense of realness, and surveillance… especially when we see the way the shots interact with the characters.

Kept At Crane's Length

From the beginning, we're with the French detective as he follows Nicoli, the camera moving just behind him as he slips down narrow alleyway and peers from around corners. We're robbed of close-ups, the cinematography instead favoring long-shots almost exclusively. In fact, we don't see anyone's face until Nicoli lowers his gun, and pridefully snatches the dead detective's baguette. (Seriously, what a jerk.)

By the time we get to the next scene, we're shocked or relieved—or both—to be more visually cozy with the characters. Charnier banters lightly with an employee on the docks. We're close, but not intimate.

And that pattern of far away-to-close-up-to-far-away continues throughout, whether it's Popeye's rough morning expression, or an overhead shot of all the criminals scattering as the cops rolls up to the drop site on Ward's Island.

Back and Forth, Up and Down

Sometimes, of course, we get both. During the famous chase scene, we get both super-close ups and shots from very far away.

This starts with Nicoli's sniper attempts on Popeye. The assassin is on the roof, and so we begin with a bird's-eye of view of the detective whistling through the park, then running for cover as a woman with baby carriage falls dead to the ground. It isn't until Popeye is up on that roof, seeing spent shells and looking for where Nicoli might have gone, that we get close to him again.

For Friedkin, the action of the plot and the psychology of the characters seems to dictate how close or far the camera seems from story. This can lend itself to some super-interesting omissions and moments of privileged data: the story is told from the POVs of both the surveyed and the surveying.

For instance, we know the drugs are in the car, even when Popeye's starting to doubt himself. We also know, that despite the cops' best efforts, Charnier knows what's up, saying how "Boca sees policemen in his soup," and Nicoli agreeing, "He's not wrong."

The cops are keeping tabs on the bad guys. The bad guys are keeping tabs on the cops. And us? We're keeping tabs on all of them.

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