A distinct New York outlook, truculent pigs and dandified frogs in "a goddamn desert full of junkies." Gangbusters adjusted to grungy 1970s ambiguity kicks off with contrasting brands of brutality, a bloody rubout that interrupts a tranquil stroll through Marseilles versus a riotous Brooklyn bust that introduces the gutter law in Santa’s hat and beard. No need to look too hard for crime, the vicious Irish cop (Gene Hackman) heads off to the nightclub after a long day’s work and his lizard brain inevitably zeros in on the small-time hustler (Tony Lo Bianco) lounging opulently at a nearby table. A hunch is all it takes for obsession to seize hold, the narc and his partner (Roy Scheider) tug at the thread and find a Gallic heroin kingpin (Fernando Rey) planning a business expansion, "89% pure junk" and 60 kilos of it. "The son of a bitch is here. I saw him. I'm gonna get him." William Friedkin takes his mark from Don Siegel and Costa-Gavras, belligerent action portraits in quick, hard, racy strokes. Grain is the texture of choice, the brickier and danker the better, the snapshot of the city runs from Brooklyn Bridge traffic jams to Madison Avenue in the metallic grip of winter. (A Washington D.C. rendezvous with the Capitol Dome in the distance gives a taste of Lewis' The Undercover Man.) The central joke is the extended flirtation between Hackman's blue-collar flatfoot and Rey's debonair lawbreaker, complete with awkward dinner date (the camera zooms from the visitor's restaurant banquet to the copper shivering outside with foul pizza and coffee) and underground two-step at the Grand Central Station subway, capped with a smile and a wave. By contrast, the celebrated Pontiac LeMans/elevated train pas de deux is a raging consummation, bumper-level POVs alternating with windshield reflections until Kubrickian "Star Gate" abstractions all but emerge. "Pay attention, we're going to ask question later!" Frankenheimer has the official sequel, Friedkin himself the unofficial one (To Live and Die in L.A.), Rush the coruscating caricature (Freebie and the Bean). Cinematography by Owen Roizman. With Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale, and Bill Hickman.
--- Fernando F. Croce