“And I’m going to nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie”
You watch William Friedkin‘s The French Connection today and literally start thinking about the forty-four years of police-based action thrillers owing it a huge debt. The genre just doesn’t have the type of cultural or artistic clout these days to win the hardware it did back then: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Actor. (I don’t count The Departed because it was a blockbuster film with an all-star cast that went beyond cat and mouse basics.) Then you remember it did it with an unlikeable anti-hero at its center and a conclusion as far from fairy tale as you can get. What happened to American audiences seeking out this type of challenging film every Friday night? It was lightning in a bottle and a high point of 70s cinema as a result.
Made for fewer than two million bucks, Gene Hackman‘s casting for Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle was due to Friedkin’s wish list being too expensive and/or against the violence consuming Ernest Tidyman‘s script. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the iconic role considering how perfectly suited he proved at depicting the volatile anger and questionable ethics necessary for a narcotics cop playing hunches and hoping they pan out. Based on Robin Moore‘s non-fiction novel of the same name, Hackman and partner Roy Schneider‘s Buddy “Cloudy” Russo had their real life counterparts Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso on set as consultants. This led to the gritty accuracy onscreen—for example the act depicted on the poster. Considered murder by the producers, Egan apparently agreed he’d have shot the man who attempted to kill him in the back too.
That kind of decision ensures The French Connection will remain a classic for generations to come as it pulls no punches with a documentary style placing actors in the same scene despite long distances and us in the action and inaction of the waiting and watching. How great is it to see a car we know smuggled heroin inside it land at a New York City port from France and drive off as the camera pushes out to show the drugs’ owner (Fernando Rey‘s Alain Charnier) and his crony (Marcel Bozzuffi‘s Pierre) peering down from stories above in one continuous take? Today we’d receive quick cuts of tires spinning, shifter adjusting, and possibly a driver before jumping to the kingpin smiling as his plan comes together. Friedkin makes sure the physical logistics of every situation is authentic.
The same thing happens later once Doyle and Russo get their commanding officer (played by Egan) and a Fed who despises everything Popeye stands for (Bill Hickman‘s Mulderig) to let them work a case they stumbled upon after a night drinking. Tailing a two-bit criminal named Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) leads them into the titular French Connection web that has Charnier using the New Yorker to facilitate meeting mobsters in search of product. The initial stalking of the Frenchman is a thing of beauty as Doyle, Russo, and Mulderig crisscross, hide inside doorframes, and pretend to be looking at anything else. The pièce de résistance, however, is the camera settling in on Charnier and Pierre enjoying lunch with a blurred figure across the street before zooming in with crisp focus to show Doyle peering back.
Complementing this unparalleled aesthetic is a story that has as many or more missteps as it does successes. This is key when your “hero” is a drunk without remorse to the fact his last hunch got someone killed. He flies on intuition and thrives on being right so much that he refuses to believe he’s ever wrong. And since this also means he can’t trust anyone to do what’s needed, he continues tailing his mark despite knowing he’s already been burned. This delivers a silent scene that’s immensely humorous between Hackman and Rey, one that entertains in its comedy of errors as it cements his as yet unchecked hubris. That’s what makes the case so enthralling—no matter how smart Doyle believes himself to be, Charnier is an equal. It only irks him more.
Tidyman and Friedkin do a great job ensuring the numerous characters never get confused for one another with a plot that segments them into groups. It’s a huge help as Sal and his wife Angie (Arlene Farber) is generally in one part of town while Rey and Pierre another until their sporadic meet-ups in between. No matter how enthralling the many stakeouts and tail jobs, though, The French Connection‘s legendary moment is the chase between Hackman’s commandeered vehicle speeding through Brooklyn and the public transportation train hijacked by his assailant above. Much of the driving is shown in first person with the camera mounted on the front of the car to feel the danger of other automobiles braking, turning off, or colliding with him (often mistimed stunts left in the final cut). It’s a pure adrenaline rush.
Whether the loud action or quiet suspense Hackman’s boisterous Popeye usually sparks, we’re given a thrill a minute. Schneider’s a wonderful straight man to contrast his shenanigans, constantly rolling his eyes in silent disbelief after going along with his partner again. He also provides some big brother mentality whenever Hickman’s Mulderig’s pushes Doyle’s buttons too far. Lo Bianco and Bozzuffi are great in otherwise one-note supporting roles—the nervous first-time in over his head and the over-confidant muscle who takes a fateful bad shot—but Hackman’s true equal is Rey. They are so alike it’s crazy, each self-important enough to think they can talk anyone into doing exactly what they want. They both cause the deaths of allies and neither stops moving towards goals just out of reach. And in the end no one wins but us.