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The French Connection (1971)

Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle
Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are two undercover cops working for the New York Narcotics Bureau, dealing with small time hoods and drug dealers on the streets of New York. Cloudy is the more sensible and low key of the two; Doyle is a loose cannon with a nose for trouble and the veteran cop's sense for when something's not right.

When they spot local hood Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) in a bar, Doyle acts on a hunch and starts tailing him. What he and his colleagues uncover is a conspiracy to import $32 million of heroin into the United States, led by French crime boss Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), and involving local criminals and a French TV personality, Henri Devereaux (Frederic De Pasquale), whose car is being used to smuggle the drugs into the U.S. Catching the bad guys will involve a lot of watching and tailing suspects, some guesswork and at least one spectacular car chase.

 The French Connection was a shot in the arm for the American film thriller in the early 1970s. The film is relatively simply plotted, but is involving and well directed, with strong performances, especially from Hackman in his star-making turn as “Popeye” Doyle. William Friedkin's direction and Owen Roizman's grainy photography give it a raw, grimy immediacy that makes it very different from producer Philip D'Antoni's previous maverick cop thriller, Bullitt (1968). Whereas Bullitt was cool and deliberate, The French Connection is raw and urgent. Filmed on the streets of New York and Marseilles, with dingy settings and equally dingy photography, The French Connection gives us a vivid portrait of the underbelly of 1970s New York, a place of petty crime, grimy streets and vacant lots. And while no one can accuse Don Ellis's music of being subtle, his deep, bassy, busy score adds to the film's sense of urgency.

Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman
The film is loosely based on a true story, told in Robin Moore's 1969 book of the same title. The book detailed the busting of a drugs racket by New York cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso in 1961, but the action is considerably amped up in this fictionalised film version, which plays down the detective work and works in shoot outs and car chases. Both Egan and Grosso appear in the film, Egan as Doyle's boss Walter Simonson, and Grosso as Detective Klein. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider spent time with Egan on patrol for their research, and Egan and Grosso both worked as advisers on the film, providing much of the slang that their fictional counterparts would use.

The action sequences are all well handled, especially the famous car/elevated train chase and a memorable cat-and-mouse game between Hackman and Fernando Rey, who may or may not be getting on to the subway train. The film's stunt co-ordinator was Bill Hickman, also the stunt driver in Bullitt's celebrated car chase. Hickman also has a small acting part in the film and acted as a driving double for Gene Hackman, although Hackman apparently did quite a bit of the driving himself. As in Bullitt, the makers intended the car chase to be the action highlight and talking point of the film. The sequence took five weeks to film and involved clearing traffic over a five block radius. The crash at the beginning of the scene, where Hackman's Pontiac hits another car, was an unplanned accident, but kept in the final cut anyway.

Two cars colliding
A lot of The French Connection is decidedly unlikely, despite its loose basis in truth. The whole car chase and the total disassembling and speedy reassembling of a suspect's car while he waits, without him suspecting a thing, are particularly improbable. But the “true story” tag line probably helped critics and audiences give it a free pass, and Friedkin's realistic, documentary style helps to sell much of it. Friedkin had done some TV work and had four features under his belt, including the Sonny and Cher musical Good Times (1967) and a film of Harold Pinter's play The Birthday Party (1968), but it was The French Connection that put him in the front rank of commercial film makers in the 1970s. One arguable misstep is the wrap-up at the end, telling us what supposedly happens to the main characters in the film. This emphasises the “true story” credentials, even if this stuff isn't necessarily true, but it undermines an ambiguous and effective final scene, as Doyle chases Charnier into the darkness and we hear a gun shot before a fade out.

Although he has less to work with than Hackman, Fernando Rey manages to create a memorable character in the French drugs kingpin Charnier, who Doyle nicknames “Frog One”. The film takes delight in contrasting the cops work on the streets with the comfortable world of Charnier and his accomplices, with the bad guys eating at fancy restaurants while Doyle hangs around in a shop doorway eating take out. Rey's casting in the film was a happy accident. Friedkin had wanted Francisco Rabal, who appeared in Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967), but a mix up led to the casting of Rey, who had appeared in a different Bunuel film, Viridiana (1961). When the mistake was discovered, Rabal was unavailable, so Rey was kept on, and would go on to appear in the sequel French Connection II.
Original poster for The French Connection
The film's break out star though was Gene Hackman. Hackman was a respected character actor, with notable roles in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and I Never Sang for My Father (1969) to his name, but it was The French Connection that turned him into a star, and “Popeye” Doyle, with his pork pie hat and baffling “You picked your feet in Poughkeepsie” catchphrase, remains one of his most memorable characters. Hackman is very much a '70s leading man. He doesn't look like a film star, he looks like an ordinary Joe, but he's a strong actor and has considerable charisma and screen presence.

Friedkin was originally unenthusiastic about the casting of Hackman and various other actors were considered, including supposedly Eddie Egan himself, as well as Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle and Jackie Gleason. A New York journalist, Jimmy Breslin, was even hired to play the role before being let go, according to Friedkin, because his acting performance was not considered good enough and because he was unable to drive.

Doyle (I don't think the “Popeye” nickname is ever actually explained) is a flawed man, but he's streetwise, with the veteran cop's instincts and the ability to work on an unlikely hunch and come up trumps. He's also a rogue who acts as a law unto himself. The film posters declared that “Doyle is bad news but a good cop”, but whether he really is a good cop is open to question. He often gets his man, but he also shoots a suspect in the back, is a danger to the public and passers-by and accidentally shoots one of his own men. The “Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” line was one of Eddie Egan's own, a hang over from an unsolved rape case, something he would habitually ask suspects in the hope of solving it. In the film it becomes part of Doyle and Buddy's good cop-bad cop routine.

It's instructive to compare The French Connection to its antecedent Bullitt. Each film is as much a product of its respective decade as the other, despite the gap of only three years between them. Bullitt, with its careful and studied sense of cool, is very clearly a product of the 1960s, while The French Connection, with it's grit and striving for realism, is a product of the very different era of the 1970s. Steve McQueen's Frank Bullitt may be a maverick who bends and occasionally breaks the rules, but he's essentially a good guy on the side of the angels. He is also cool, well dressed, with a beautiful girlfriend and drives a cool car. Popeye Doyle, however, is a more ambiguous character. He not only breaks the rules, but is violent, a racist and puts his own side and the public in danger. While Bullitt is the epitome of cool, Hackman's Popeye Doyle is dishevelled, lives in an apartment that looks like a bomb has hit it and has a wet doorway to stand in instead of a cool muscle car to drive.

Roy Scheider as Buddy Russo
The maverick cop films of the late 1960s and 1970s suggest an ambiguity towards the police in American society, and their leading characters combine elements of the establishment with the anti-establishment. This is apparent in Bullitt, but by the time of The French Connection and Dirty Harry, these films embody an uneasy paradox; on the one hand portraying a brutal, dirty world where we need tough cops to fight our corner and keep the bad guys away. On the other, a sense that some of these cops may have too much power, may be too aggressive and may not even be good people. The French Connection keeps us on Doyle's side as he hunts down the drugs ring, partly due to Hackman's compelling performance, but it's always with a sense of underlying unease about who he is and what he might do.

The French Connection was a critical and box office success, turned William Friedkin into an A list director (for a while), made a bona fide star of Gene Hackman and marked out another up-and-coming one in Roy Scheider. The film was also critically lauded and won five Oscars at the 1972 Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing, as well as Best Actor for Gene Hackman. The film also picked up a fistful of other film awards and nominations, particularly for Hackman, who also won a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award, the latter jointly with his role in The Poseidon Adventure.

Fernando Rey
Hackman continued in leading roles in the 1970s and Scheider would soon be promoted to leading man status as well, starring in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jaws (1975) and working with William Friedkin again on Sorcerer (1977). Friedkin consolidated his success with the horror film The Exorcist (1973), but his fall from grace began with Sorcerer, an expensive remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 film The Wages of Fear, which bombed at the box office.

The French Connection also earned itself a less well regarded, but occasionally interesting sequel, French Connection II in 1975, and was a notable influence on the film and TV crime genre in the 1970s. Some of these influences are obvious, as in its producer Philip D'Antonio's next film The Seven Ups (1973), starring Roy Scheider, and some less so, like the British cops 'n' robbers TV series The Sweeney (1975-78). Unlike Bullitt and Dirty Harry, The French Connection was also a buddy cop film, a genre that it helped to create and that would remain popular in Hollywood for a couple of decades. But while The French Connection has been much imitated, it's rarely been bettered in its genre, and stands as one of the best crime films of the 1970s.

The French Connection

Year: 1971
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Country: USA
Language: English, French
Director: William Friedkin

Cast Gene Hackman (Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Roy Scheider (Buddy 'Cloudy' Russo), Tony Lo Bianco (Sal Boca), Marcel Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli), Eddie Egan (Walt Simonson), Frederic de Pasquale (Henri Devereaux), Bill Hickman (Mulderig), Ann Rebbot (Marie Charnier), Harold Gary (Weinstock), Arlene Farber (Angie Boca), Andre Ernotte (La Valle), Sonny Grosso (Klein), Benny Marino (Lou Boca), Pat McDermott (Chemist), Alan Weeks (Pusher), Al Fann (Informant), Irving Abrahams (Police mechanic), Randy Jurgensen (Police sergeant), William Coke (Motorman), Fat Thomas (Mutchie)

Screenplay Ernest Tidyman, based on the book by Robin Moore  Producer Philip D'Antoni  Cinematography Owen Roizman  Editor Gerald B. Greenberg  Art Direction Ben Kazaskow  Music Don Ellis  Stunt coordinator Bill Hickman

Running time 104 mins  Colour  Deluxe
Production company  D'Antoni Productions, in association with Shine-Moore Productions  Distributor Twentieth Century Fox

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