The French Connection
US (1971) Dir. William Friedkin
I have to be honest, of all the Best Film Oscar winners The French Connection was one of those which I always felt seemed out of place alongside such revered treasures as Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, The Godfather, etc. As it stands this is a pretty good film that brought a gritty realism to the cop thriller genre hitherto unknown to mainstream audiences, which one can assume appealed to the Academy jury.
It is justly famous for an incredible POV car chase that has never been bettered and the fast paced narrative which leapt from one situation to the next with little time for exposition and character development keeping the audience on their toes for its 100 minute run.
The title refers to a $32 million heroin deal which New York narcotics department cops Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are on a stake out to bust, believing that the delivery is coming from France. This hunch was correct with the dealer, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), secretly hiding it in the car of his friend, French actor Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), who is journeying to the US.
That is it for the central plot, which is alarmingly thin, but it is what happens around it that is where the film builds its reputation and engages the audience. Based on the novel by Robin Moore the inspiration for the story was the real life Franco-American drug smuggling business of the last 60’s and 70’s, along with many of the characters. Charnier mirrors a real life French drugs baron while his New York contacts, Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and wife Barbie (Arlene Farber) also existed. In fact, the real life Barbie wrote a book about her life with Robin Moore!
Aside from the chases and gun play (more of that later) the other driving force of the film is the dichotomy of the two cops. Popeye is the older of the two, a brash, short tempered, hard drinking, no nonsense guy whose amoral and aggressive tactics haven’t exactly endeared him to his superiors. Cloudy is younger, level headed and more organised but remains loyal to Popeye. Despite being a driven cop, his results are less than stellar and he needs this bust to keep his position with the narcotics squad.
All of the foibles and personality traits of both men are played out as the film rolls on with nary a line of dialogue used to spell out what makes them tick. Right from the onset when Cloudy keeps pulling Popeye away from a suspect yelling at him to calm down, their opposing personalities are clearly defined. In the next scene, where Popeye has conned Cloudy to join him in spying on the Bocas in a night club, we are introduced to Popeye’s cunning and his observational skills, miraculously discerning how the Bocas are involved just by watching them.
Every good cop needs a good villain and Charnier is a smart cookie, aware that Popeye and his men are following him around town. As canny as Popeye is Charnier can match him, and we are engrossed in a game of cat and mouse, from the clever to the audacious, ending with a train sequence which has been imitated and lampooned ever since.
Friedkin’s direction is very intimate and often unsophisticated yet precise and revealing. His depiction of New York in the winter is atypically unglamorous for the time when Hollywood movies tended to bathe its landmarks in aesthetic glory, instead presenting it as a grey and relentlessly drab place. Little touches create a cinema vérité style, such as Popeye shuffling unsteadily in the cold while spying on Charnier or the moments of discomfort while stuck in a cramped car during an overnight stake out.
Up until this point in cinema New York has rarely looked this dangerous and while it is the criminals that make it dangerous, cops like Popeye make it even more perilous. A sing of the times, he manages to silence and control an entire bar of drug taking men by himself whereas today he would have been slain on the spot.
Another interesting facet which adds much to the drama is the lack of mobile phones, leaving the lines of communication limited between partners during crucial moments. Had this been made today, it would be an entirely different film altogether for this reason and for the power of the internet for ease of secrecy for the criminals in conducting their transactions.
When it comes to iconic scenes this film can boast a car chase which was a genuine game changer. Shot largely from the perspective of Popeye as he navigates his way – sometimes literally – through the streets in pursuit of a hijacked train, this is a truly superb piece of filmmaking. From the camerawork to the actual driving, the timing is stupendous and the editing puts the audience right in the moment of this race against time.
Gene Hackman won an Oscar for the role of Popeye Doyle again quite an achievement when up against the likes of Topol in his career defining role in Fiddler On The Roof, but to his credit Hackman is astutely compelling as this flawed but dogged cop. Roy Scheider provides robust support as Cloudy while Fernando Rey is quietly menacing as the suave French crook Charnier.
Having now seen The French Connection, I still have some reservations about the Oscar win, but then I would need to see every film from 1971 to be confident there weren’t better candidates. It has some plot holes and little continuity niggles (how did they rebuild that stripped car so quickly?) but I can say unequivocally that this earthy police thriller has earned it classic status. A fun if often bumpy ride indeed.