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.
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.
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 1970s 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.
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, that 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 ConnectionYear: 1971
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
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