Spatial clarity and thematic currents in three William Friedkin chase sequences

02 August 2012

As I head towards the completion of a Master’s degree, I thought I’d truncate and rework the first piece I submitted last autumn, after two years in the non-academic wilderness, in which I had to analyse the formal and thematic signature of a director of my choice. Opting for William Friedkin, I argued early in the piece that as a filmic storyteller he “displays a keen visual economy and spatial awareness”, and would suggest here (such value-judgements are forbidden in academia) that that’s becoming an increasingly rare accolade in mainstream American cinema. (There are impressive aerial vistas in the likes of The Dark Knight Rises, for instance, but when it comes down to the set-pieces of that action film, director Christopher Nolan tends to go in too close too soon, and all you get is the abstract impression of things rather than a clear sense of who’s where when.)

Below, I look at three chase sequences from films made across as many decades: The French Connection (1971), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Jade (1995). If the term can be used without risk of sounding pejorative, Friedkin is a genre filmmaker, and in all three of these films he manages to retain or even find a narrative energy even when the plots in general are unremarkable. A large part of that narrative energy is sustained through strictly cinematic means: in scenes in which one character tails another – as they do in The French Connection or 1981’s Cruising – both can often be seen in the same visual space, our attention drawn from one to the other through focus pulls, zooms or careful blocking. In each of the car chase set-pieces I’m discussing below, Friedkin lends the action, on the one hand enough visual and temporal space for its information to register, and on the other spatial coherence through montage, so that viewers can accept otherwise implausible movement as reasonable and therefore, crucially, exciting. (“Clarity = plausibility = interesting/excitement” is the implicit argument running through Jim Emerson’s excellent three-part In the Cut video-essay, the third part of which also briefly mentions The French Connection.) Jargon and spoilers follow - though readers will get more out of this if they're at least familiar with the scenes in question.

The French Connection’s famous car-train chase sequence comprises just over 120 shots within 5½ minutes. The average shot length across the sequence doesn’t tell us much: though a fairly quick 2.75 seconds or so, the shortest shots come in quick flurries, when Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) has to veer from oncoming collisions, and before and during the concluding train crash. We get a better sense of Friedkin’s directorial efficiency if we observe how quickly he establishes a fluid spatiality between car (pursuer) and train (pursued). When Doyle halts a passing car and takes control of it, the discouraging (for Doyle) distance between him and Pierre (Marcel Bozzuffi), the man he is chasing, is denoted not only by the graphic contrast but also by the change in sound, from road-level chaos to the more uniform timbre of the elevated railway. Suspense and disorientation are imbued immediately: the first shot’s straight-on angle is not mirrored in the follow-up, but is offset entirely by the high angle and change in the direction of movement (right-to-left in the first, left-to-right in the second):

Two further shots ensue, both aboard the train itself: a simple shot-reverse shot establishes the carriage-to-carriage movement of Pierre as he is followed by a train guard; utilising cinematographer Owen Roizman’s long to normal focal length lenses for a long shot in the first instance and a medium shot in the second, Friedkin is able, in the relatively tight space of a train carriage, to foreground action without ignoring the presence of other passengers: 

Not only does this immediately establish authenticity – which in turn heightens the visceral impact of the set-piece – it also demonstrates the brevity with which Friedkin is able to get to the heart of the matter; a mere three shots into this chase sequence and we have everything in the mise-en-scène that prepares us for its dramatic conclusion: an armed but panicking antagonist, a suspecting train guard and a train full of innocent people.

The next two shots return to Popeye. Firstly, a high-angle shot of Popeye’s car immediately recalls, in contrast to when we last saw him, the left-to-right movement of the train. The follow-up gives a fleeting but clear image of Popeye looking above him as he drives, with the elevated railway reflected in his windscreen, bringing together in one frame two spaces of action and thus restoring spatial continuity: 

Four subsequent shots further cement Popeye’s position and the action at hand: to manoeuvre his way through traffic. Two exterior shots – a pan emphasises the speed at which Popeye is driving, while a reverse tracking shot heightens it further – are alternated with two interior shots, one side-on to Popeye and the other from behind him:

Beyond merely elongating the set-piece, these rear and side-on views defer the significant moment, some twenty-four shots later, at which we see Popeye’s whole face for the first time.

Examining the four shots immediately preceding this forthcoming head-on shot, we see how succinctly Friedkin directs action. Note again the economical inclusion of two visual elements within the same frame: the immediate threat to a civilian (the train’s driver) alongside the reflected railway track, its passing speed priming us for the crash to come:

Following this, the graphic contrast between the gun on the driver’s face and the high-angle shot of Popeye’s car seen fleetingly through the same tracks  achieves several things simultaneously: it suggests claustrophobia and prepares us for the driver’s eventual fainting – and with it, the conclusive train crash – and it also creates suspense by privileging the audience with knowledge eluding Popeye: danger to civilians:

The exaggerated sound of Popeye’s car’s engine accompanies the next shot, simultaneously suggesting heroism and carelessness. The subsequent, head-on close-up is a key moment in the sequence. It shifts the emphasis from the external action of the chase to our psychological identification with the protagonist:

 Henceforth, this recurrent, head-on shot of Popeye increases in frequency as he becomes visibly more agitated, heightened aesthetically when the cacophony of horns and screeching traffic obliterates his hitherto audible voice. The authentic soundtrack takes on more expressive qualities precisely due to the increasing regularity of facial close-ups.

This technique is also used in Jade’s car chase, when David Corelli (David Caruso), in pursuit of a car whose driver has just killed his key witness, shouts repeatedly to the participants of a street parade he is attempting to drive through. As with The French Connection’s sequence, Friedkin resists music in favour of diegetic sound, which, as the parade forces Corelli’s car to a standstill, overwhelms his appeals, even if a formal shift from external action (stunts) to a more internal drama (Corelli’s desperation) has been signified.
Interestingly, Jade’s chase sequence is a minute or so longer than The French Connection’s but only contains ten shots more, suggesting Friedkin had developed by 1995 a more fluid visual style that demanded less cutting. As an example that seems to confirm this, the fifth shot of the sequence (51 minutes into the film) combines a near-head-on view of Corelli with a pan to the side of his car and then a forward-moving POV, all in one smooth shot. Though all of these are present in The French Connection, they are not combined in one take. The precedent for Jade's head-shot/pan/POV combo is early on in To Live and Die in L.A.’s chase sequence, which begins around the 77 minute mark, lasts seven minutes and contains less than 120 shots (trimming The French Connection’s 125 across 5½ minutes).

If we treat the shot in which Richard Chance (William Petersen) and John Vukovich (John Pankow) get back in their car as the first in L.A.’s sequence, then the fourth is a tracking shot that lasts almost twenty seconds, following the car from an off-road lane to the road proper, after which the car chasing them enters the same visual field. So early in this set-piece, Friedkin combines spatial clarity with impressive visual timing to give his action both a visceral charge and plausibility through one fluid camera movement. The following five stills are, for instance, all from the same shot:

The following succession of twenty or so shots, involving drivers negotiating their way through narrow industrial alleys, anticipates the street parade in Jade’s chase. The twenty shots culminate in the combination shot directly repeated in Jade, in which a head-on view of the protagonist pans into, in essence, a POV shot (both stills below are from the same shot, divided by a pan):

In a rare flashback, Friedkin juxtaposes a close-up of Chance’s face with a shot from earlier in the film, in which he bungee jumped from a bridge, thereby invoking the psychological state of the character in a more stylised way than in either The French Connection or Jade.

Do not enter: wrong way

All three films’ chase sequences are points at which, in the adrenaline-fuelled, intuition-demanding moment, the protagonists decide to carry through what they’ve started to the very end, fully accepting the implications of a world precluding half-measures. Forced back into action by an attempt on his life, Doyle has nothing more to lose other than his police badge; for Corelli, the chase doubles, given its circumstances, as his last chance of hunting an unknown killer; a more stylish variant has Chance – whose name embodies his gutsy methods – find his all-or-nothing moment summed up visually with a road sign ironically foregrounded as his car screeches off behind it:

These action scenes aren't just about spatial clarity. Each combines economical techniques and a careful editorial approach to signify a subtle shift in emphasis from action to character. This turn, from a set-piece foregrounding incident to one containing something more psychological, is indicative of a wider recurrent notion in Friedkin’s work, I think: that of men becoming consumed by their circumstance or profession. Indeed, though more explicitly obsessive currents run through characters like Popeye Doyle, Richard Chance and The Hunted’s Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), there are more suggestive examples, such as Cruising's Steve Burns (Al Pacino), The Exorcist’s Father Karras (Jason Miller) and David Corelli. While the former three are vigilantes, the latter three find themselves increasingly torn between professional detachment and dangerous curiosity.

Recurrent dissidence, or at the very least doubt, in these authority figures begets the ultimate irreconcilability between the demands of their professions and the intrinsic bureaucracy that works against them. Such irreconcilability normally proves the characters’ undoing, be that fatally, as in To Live and Die in L.A. or The Exorcist, or more suggestively, such as in Cruising or The French Connection, whose final shot, of Popeye Doyle leaving the visual frame to search an unseen room, cuts to black with the sound of a gunshot.