The French Connection II: Gene Hackman is strong to the finnich as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in the first film ever to have a number after its title.
A trio of ‘70s action flicks for your amusement, led by Gene Hackman, Walter Matthau, and... Whit Bissell?
French Connection II trailer
French Connection II (1975)
The porkpie hat is as unmistakably American as the beret is French. And not since the days of Buster Keaton has a character become as bound to the felt topper as Gene Hackman’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. When we spot it emerging from a taxi, there is no doubt about whose head it’s attached to. John Frankenheimer’s followup to William Friedkin’s genre-broadening original is more remake than sequel; one of the few modifications is a change of locale from New York to France. Armed with the knowledge that his arch nemesis Charnier (Fernando Rey) alive, well, and continuing to refuel heroin addicts around the globe, it’s Doyle’s single-minded obligation to take the drug kingpin down, no matter how many people get killed in the process. Our story begins in a fish market, as Doyle hits town on April 1, a day that’s celebrated in Marseilles by youthful tricksters who pin paper fish on the back of unsuspecting adults. Doyle pockets the paper pisces taped to the door of his cab, in essence foreshadowing one of the cruellest celluloid pranks ever perpetrated against a cop by his superiors. The detective that exits the cab is far more comical than the no-nonsense goon we had come to love and fear four years prior. Doyle aggressively passes the remains of a fish guts handshake on to another officer, or pats his breast and back pockets to make sure his wallet is still there when the natives get too close. He laughs upon learning the call that came in about drugs at the market was an April Fool’s joke, meant to derail an investigation led by Inspector Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson). In return, Barthélémy assigns two detectives to tail Doyle in case he runs into Charnier. Doyle is then kidnapped by a trio of Charnier’s sidemen and escorted to a motel shooting gallery, where he’s treated with enough heroin to kill a dozen Inspector Clouseaus. If the motel was a fleapit, the jail cell in which the gendarmes pump his stomach looks like something out of House of Frankenstein. No matter how big of a disagreeable, uncouth jerk Doyle is — he insults Barthélémy by saying, “I’d rather be a lamppost in New York than the President of France” — it’s hard to swallow his French brethren setting him up as a pincushion patsy. And if they can prove that Doyle was framed, how can the force possibly bounce him for being an addict? Doyle’s addiction and its subsequent withdrawal distracts from the drama at hand faster than a preachy, extended courtroom sequence separates Atticus Finch from his two infinitely more watchable relationships with Scout and Jem. Hackman was reluctant to do the sequel, fearing that too much time had passed since the original came out. (Perhaps he thought the withdrawal scenes would be enough to earn him a follow-up Oscar?) Still, Popeye’s “strong to the finnich’” foot chase that climaxes the picture is enough to compensate for the film’s brutal second act.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
In hindsight, it all seems so remarkably simple: four strangers — Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) (the character color wheel originated in Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential and was borrowed years later by Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs)— plan on extorting money from the government by holding hostage the entire New York City subway system.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three trailer
The at-the-time high-tech, but still pre-microchip command center that wowed audiences in 1974 now seems quaint to the point of being comforting. The caper is so logical and easily executable that it unfolds like a blueprint for urban terrorism, decades before it became fashionable. Indeed, for years, New York City dispatchers, fearing a copycat incident, saw to it that no trains departed from Pelham station at 1:23 am or pm. Attired in a shirt and tie combo never intended to be worn apart let alone together, Walter Matthau plays Lt. Zach Garber with a great degree of physical self-deprecation. Joseph Sargent’s direction moves along at a lightning clip. Sargent was always a stickler for cheats and misplaced logic, and there isn’t one implausible step in the picture. As contrived as it is, even the curtain gag works because it appears to be unobtrusively woven into the plot. If ever a film was a product of its time and temperament, it’s this: not a special effect in sight, just honest, straightforward storytelling and compelling physical drama. By comparison, Tony Scott’s “little engine that could” remake, powered by the best computer technicians money can buy, turned out to be a train wreck.
Psychic Killer trailer
Psychic Killer (1975)
We close with a mini-tribute to one of Hollywood’s most dependable character actors: whether playing a prematurely gray sawbones or a prematurely gray scientist, Whit Bissell’s name in the credits held as much promise (and a scooch more screen time) as a Hitchcock cameo. When a character asked, “Is there a doctor in the house?,” Whit answered the call. Need a convincing science guy who just happens to look smashing in a lab coat? Whit fits. He played so many doctors that he could cure the dead, and enough scientists (mad or otherwise) to turn us into a race of teenage werewolves! He was 65 when he appeared in this horror cheapie about a mental patient (Jim Hutton) who relies on “astral travel” as his main means of destroying his enemies. It’s been said that if you last long enough in Hollywood, the reward is a nude love-making scene. Whit stays covered, of course — covered in Max Factor Pancake Makeup Tan #2. He’s wearing more base than the chick! And his subsequent death by audio-phonic torture is a moment to be put on a loop and studied. It was the first DVD I ever purchased, after it appeared to me in a used bin in Burbank for $10.00. Surely something as priceless as this would go out of print quicker than a Japanese import laser disc? (It’s since been released on blu-ray.) I didn’t even have a player, but I knew what I had to do. The film was directed by Ray Danton and if the name rings a bell, it’s because he played Legs Diamond in Budd Boetticher’s blazing gangster biopic, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. I was fortunate enough to spend time in Budd’s company watching him hold court, and when Danton’s name came up he laughed and called him, “The biggest, most egocentric prick I ever met in my life.” Funny, it doesn’t show in his direction. (I sure miss Budd!)