Flashback
A look back at this day in film history
December 20
October 8, 1971
The French Connection opens

The night The French Connection opened in the fall of 1971, the director William Friedkin was on the phone with 20th Century-Fox hearing the good news. The gritty crime film he made for $1.8 million was going to be a hit. The movie ultimately made $26.3 million domestically and went on be nominated for eight Oscars, winning five, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Gene Hackman). Having previously made a play-based film, Friedkin was worried about being pigeonholed as an art director, and wanted to establish himself as a old-time movie maker. Based on a non-fiction book by Robin Moore, The French Connection covered the real-world heroin trade between Marseilles and New York, with Gene Hackman and Roy Schneider playing two NYC detectives. But the film is less remembered for its plot as for its gritty, neo-realist look at New York City cops. Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle was a far cry from the heroic cops of traditional police procedurals. (Interestingly, Friedkin had wanted Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and Jimmy Breslin before Hackman for the role.) In addition, the free-wheeling hand-held camera style (that would be a mainstay for film and television decades later) and frenzied cutting created a raw energy that caught many viewers off guard. In the New York Times, Roger Greenspun commented on the film’s frantic energy, writing, “It moves at magnificent speed, and exhausts itself in movement.” For its famous train chase, where a detective follows an elevated train through the streets below, Friedkin later confided he edited the sequence to Santana's "Black Magic Woman," so while the music is not there, the rhythm is.


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Harold and Maude Dec. 20, 1971
Harold and Maude Opens

Hal Ashby's iconic black comedy Harold and Maude opened in theaters on December 20, 1971.

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December 20, 1979
Bob Fosse's All That Jazz

For denizens of the New York theater scene, Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All that Jazz provided them the guessing game of the season. What scandals was Fosse going to spill in his expose musical? The film, which tells the story of a Broadway choreographer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), whose excesses in life and work bring him to the edge of a collapse, was clearly modeled on Fosse’s own life. Some actors (like Ann Reinking) play characters very similar to themselves; other figures (like ex-wife Gwen Verdon, producer Hal Prince, and others) are played by others; and other actors (like Jessica Lange) who were close to Fosse play oddly mythic figures. Fosse, who’d started choreographing for film in 1954, was soon pulled to New York to choreograph and eventually direct such musicals as Pippin, Chicago, and Sweet Charity. In 1969, he started making films as well, winning an Oscar in 1972 for Cabaret. A demanding taskmaster and infamous womanizer, the chain-smoking Fosse suffered a heart attack in 1975. It was during this period that Shirley Maclaine (according to her) suggested he create something about his brush with death. The resulting film is a breathtaking musical sleight of hand as Fosse’s alter ego Joe Gideon reveals his innermost fears and desires only to cover them in the next moment with all that jazz––surreal show stopping dance numbers and Felliniesque romps into his libido and unconscious. In 1987, life imitated art as Fosse died from a heart attack, just moments before his revival of Sweet Charity was to open at the National Theater.

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