Lasting Images

Some motion picture images are so powerful that they burn their way into our memories and imaginations, and become models for later movies.

There are the towering skyscrapers of the futuristic city of Metropolis (1927), which opened the Detroit Film Theatre’s summer film series on June 11, 2010. And many science fiction movies of the 1970s and 1980s owe a debt of gratitude to the graceful movement of the spacecraft models of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which played at the Redford Theatre on June 25-26, 2010.

Few film images are more famous than the breathtaking chase scene in The French Connection (1971), which played at the Michigan Theater on June 27, 2010, as part of that theater’s Summer Classic Film Series.

The chase scene occurs about 2/3 of the way through The French Connection, when Gene Hackman commandeers a car driven by a private citizen to chase down a man on an elevated train who had been shooting at Hackman. The chase scene was a big source of word-of-mouth advertising. It was what brought people into the theater.

The chase scene involved a classic Pontiac muscle car (1971 Le Mans). During the chase, the screen rushed at you, so that you felt the same adrenaline rush as Hackman, whose face was shown several times through the windshield that had quickly moving light reflected on it.

The chase scene helped emphasize one of the big themes of the movie—the frustration of apprehending criminals in a big city like New York, and the reckless pragmatism that sometimes seems the only option for dealing with crime.

The postscript at the end of the movie, when we learned that many of the bad guys got less punishment than we expected, underscored the futility and limited effectiveness that sometimes is the only reward for policework. It helped explain Hackman’s questionable techniques and his single-minded focus. At times, you almost felt like Hackman’s style was the only way to deal with the massive complexity of New York City. Just force your way through situations and explain yourself later.

The French Connection probably helped educate many people about the extent of urban decay and the large amounts of money involved in the international drug trade, which more people could relate to with the rise of illegal drug use during the 1960s. It can be seen as part of a trend in 1970s films about frustration with inner city crime and decay, in line with movies like Death Wish (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976).

The French Connection was released in the fall of 1971, and can be seen as an important signpost along the everchanging journey of how the cinema expressed itself. The violence and language of The French Connection would have been unimaginable only three years earlier, before the establishment of the movie ratings system in the fall of 1968. A few months after The French Connection, violence increased even further, with Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, and Straw Dogs.

The French Connection had the new realism of early 1970s films—more hand held camerawork, film processed in darker shades. The sound was mixed differently—more separation in the multitrack recording. Certain sounds, like voices, car noises, and gunshots, were pushed farther up in the audio mix, in front of the more atmospheric, ambient noises.

At the Movies in 1971

My personal memories of movies in 1971 include such films as The Abominable Dr. Phibes, with Vincent Price, which I saw on a double bill in a theater with True Grit (1969). That year also included the last of many trips to the drive in with my parents and brothers and sisters, with a triple bill of John Wayne in Big Jake; Bandolero! (1968) (James Stewart, Dean Martin, and Raquel Welch); and The Reivers (1969) (Steve McQueen). My moviegoing also ranged from Walt Disney’s The Million Dollar Duck (Dean Jones, Sandy Duncan) to Sean Connery’s return as James Bond in Diamonds are Forever.

Two 1971 movies that I wished that I had seen when they first came out are Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, one of the best children’s movies for both kids and adults ever made, along with Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most profoundly moving musicals ever produced. I’ve been privileged to experience the full wonder of these films at the Redford Theatre and Michigan Theater. The Michigan also recently hosted Walt Disney’s big movie of 1971—Bedknobs and Broomsticks, with Angela Lansbury.

The Summer Classic Film Series of the Michigan lightens up for the July 4th holiday weekend, with the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers (1930) on July 4 and 6. The series runs through September 12 and 14, when it presents the newly restored Metropolis with live organ accompaniment by Dr. Steven Ball.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.


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