In the early 70s there were two titanically superb noir flicks delicately placed into new cinema canon and while neither of them immediately front as a typical noir flick you can be certain they are bleak to their modern core. And their lead actor brings the hollow games to the fore because no one in the 70s played a man downtrodden by the world and yet still marching forward like Atlas than Gene Hackman.
In THE FRENCH CONNECTION, the role of Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle is such a great updated turn on the old pulp detective leads, as they show his flaws, his determination, and his desire for progress no matter what barriers might be placed in his way. In the way he continually trudged onward, in a manner we can see is to his own downfall, makes him a perfect noir lead, but he’s also a new breed of this sad soul archetype. And this is because of societal boundaries towards narratives.
Doyle is, to put it bluntly, a scumbag. He’s beyond the loveable scamps of old, or even the hardboiled bastards, no, Doyle is a flat out terrible human being. He’s racist, abusive, a drunk, and his moral code isn’t broken, it’s just casually cast aside, buried over time, forgotten. Noir leads often march because they see the light, or they ignore the dark, but Doyle marches into the darkness and screams into it. He screams to master it. He’s a complex guy and at this time was somewhat indicative of a new way of telling stories. You could suddenly go real deep and dark with your leads and there was little filter.
This perfect cultural storm of time and inclination brings us this NYC detective who will go to any lengths to stop the roaring drug trade pouring into his city – which is about the one redeemable aspect of the character, his ultimate goal is something good. He’s just given far too liberal a set of tools and methods to make this happen.
There is little joy to be taken in watching Doyle, and his partner Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo played by Roy Scheider, beating suspects and owning the streets through impact and aggression. The job is not shown to be fun because at that time it was not fun – hell, it’s probably never ‘eff you en’ to be a beat cop of any level – and so we see how the sausages were made at this time. It’s hard work and while you want Doyle to win you almost don’t want to know how he gets it done. Which is exactly how practises like these are cultivated in the first place.
But you quietly urge Doyle to do just one more thing, terrible as it might be, if it’ll just get him to that shining light of victory. You lean forward, you allow, right up until you realise it’s not going to work. There’s only ever one outcome from this behaviour.
You see it plastered across the car chase, both what you see and how we now know it was made. It’s a reckless pursuit of something grander and even when it works you are left wondering what could have been the outcome had it not. And in that moment of blunder, would it all have been worth it? You know a single beat ‘no’ is the only answer. But you watch the chase, and you laud it, and it’s amazing. And, well, it does look pretty damn fine, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t love a fast car?
But is it amazing when a cop shoots a criminal in the back? Is that the moment you maybe start to turn away from Doyle? But do you condemn as you turn? Are we complicit in his noir downfall, or are we actually exhibiting the exact model that leads to societal downfall? We turn, but we allow. What else would Doyle do if he’s given rights to such barbarity by absence of reprimand or example? Or is this the necessary roughness needed to protect society from growing ill will and action? The poster tagline says Doyle is bad news-but a good cop. Do we hand off the responsibility of civil protection and then also hand across the right to complain when that job makes people sell their souls. It’s a set of super grey questions to ask which is the whole point of the flick. How far are we expected to go, and how far will we let others go for us? Never forget that we are at fault for helping Doyle fall, and all because we want to live in the good life his actions might possibly provide.
If he were successful in his goal. But the 70s were a great time in cinema to show us that the people promising you it’ll get better, the people promising you it’s worth the means to justify the end, are a bunch of bastards. And the bastards all quietly die on the inside, back when we thought people cared about that sort of demise. A flickering of the soul, a blackening of our hopes. All for the greater good.
Weren’t we all wrong?
Doyle is, and in the final sequence we see just how wrong when he chases drug kingpin Charnier into an old warehouse. Anyone half-familiar with cinema narrative structure knows this is the set up for the final reel showdown where the hero catches the villain, or perhaps is forced into killing him to end the madness. But this is not just noir it’s 70s cinema noir which means you have no idea what you are going to get.
Doyle is tracking this fiend when he sees a figure move, though can’t quite make out whom it is. He does the only heroic thing his dna understands and he opens fire. The figure is taken down but upon closer inspection we discover it is not Charnier, it is another federal agent. Doyle barely pauses, this should be cause for a broken career, no less a broken man, but Doyle processes it quickly and then moves on. He hasn’t caught his man so he needs to continue. It’s horrible in the most literal sense and it’s indicative of how black Doyle is on the inside. This friendly fire crime that’s cost another man his life doesn’t bother Doyle at all, he knows to do what he does he has to press forward.
Buy Doyle’s kind of forward is also very steeply downward.
Popeye Doyle is a bombastic noir lead, someone completely complicit in his every step down the path whereas 3 years later Hackman would play an entirely different noir man as Harry Caul in THE CONVERSATION. Caul is someone who has no idea the noir spiral is winding around him and he only feels it once it pulls tight, and it’s too late.
Francis Ford Coppola was hot off THE GODFATHER which swept some Oscars and is easily one of the best flicks of all time and while he was following that flick up with a sequel that some believe to be even better [I don’t] and just as many tout as the greatest sequel of all time [it’s gotta be right up there with DAY OF THE DEAD and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and ALIENS and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY] Coppola isn’t a guy who has ever wanted to be a one trick pony. Whereas most directors steer into the skid of the genre they initially dominate – and you get Scorsese’s crime flicks and Carpenter’s horror flicks – Coppola is the sort of guy who seems to engineer his career like he’s mapping his own professional noir as we see him go from being a master of the craft, a pioneer and innovator, to someone who is off the radar and disrespectfully forgotten, or ignored.
But before Coppola erased himself from history, he crafted a tale where someone was recording history and it led to their downfall. And now THE CONVERSATION stands as one of the finest pieces of quiet cinema you’ll find anywhere and you won’t quickly forget how Harry Caul’s world and mind are dismantled. Even though this team deliver a film you can instantly tell was destined to fail. Well, by that I mean it was destined to gain a lower gross and project a smaller tone so it so rarely gets held up against Coppola’s GODFATHER flicks or APOCALYPSE NOW. But it equally holds its own in that field.
It all begins with a simple task, record a couple walking and talking in the park. It’s mundane and even if it goes pear shaped you’d assume it’ll spill into a domestic problem. In a word: manageable.
So Harry Caul takes the job because he’s the best there is at what he does and what he does is peep on people and record their sound. He’s an aural kind of guy. But he doesn’t hear the thunder coming.
The fascinating thing about THE CONVERSATION is that from this initial premise, the story unfolds that what Caul thinks he’s listening to is not that, and it instead leads to the death of another man and a cover up whereby Caul can’t out the offenders. In the end, he’s left to stew in the belief he’s being kept under surveillance himself, his one true fear which we see early on that he safeguards against at all costs.
The narrative is thin because this was never about an epic governmental take down, this is the study of one man imploding. We watch Caul listen and relisten to one line from the conversation he stole and he’s peering into its abyss trying to work out what is down there. Suitably, he comes nowhere near cracking the code but watching how intently he draws focus and must prevail shows you how he gets led down in the end. He’s unilaterally afraid and yet has singular vision. A quality blindside – and it must be really high quality to work – completely takes him off the map.
You get the feeling if Coppola could have dropped another 45 minutes of Caul scrutinising the tape he would have. Because it’s that perfect vision of him not letting go and getting himself dragged down through tenacity and curiosity.
The story resolves with Caul hearing a playback of his own saxophone playing and realising he’s been tapped. He tears his apartment apart and there’s really no greater metaphor for noir.
The film closes on Caul alone, playing his sax, which is where the device most likely resides. He is utterly doomed to the bound and repressed life he has built himself.