Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The French Connection (1971) -- William Friedkin

Hard drugs have become scarce on the street when two tough New York City narcotics cops get wind of a large drug shipment coming in from France. Over the course of several days Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) match wits with the mastermind, suave Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), a big international heroin dealer. After long, tedious hours of surveillance, they move to effect what they hope will be a major drug bust.

Based on real events a decade before but set in 1971, The French Connection is one of those rare films that seems to perfectly capture the period and setting of its story. New York has never seemed as gritty and dangerous, and the life of a big city cop never so tedious and frustrating. It's a gripping tale of what it's like for police in the uphill battle against the scourge of drugs. There is a somewhat documentary feel to the action, and with a script laced with crude street language and populated with junkies, small-time and big-time crooks, and red-eyed cops, director William Friedkin and his actors achieve remarkable authenticity. (Hackman and Scheider shadowed real cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso for a month to get a feel for the job). Hackman gives one of his best performances as the obsessed, manic protagonist.

Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle.
The pacing of the film is superb. Friedkin begins by unveiling the smuggling plan with action in Marseilles, then shifts to New York to introduce Popeye, dressed as Santa Claus, and his partner Cloudy in a highly effective set piece. The two cops are on a routine drug case, looking for a particular dealer. When their suspect takes flight, they follow on foot, huffing and puffing until they corner him in a rubble-strewn yard. Popeye plays bad cop, Cloudy, good cop as they work the fellow over.

Popeye Doyle: "All right! You put a shiv in my partner. You know what that means? Goddammit! All winter long I got to listen to him gripe about his bowling scores. Now I'm gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I'm gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie."
 And later:
Doyle:   "You dumb guinea."
Cloudy: "How the hell was I supposed to know he had a knife."
Doyle:    "Never trust a nigger."
Cloudy: "He could have been white."
Doyle: "Never trust anyone!"
You understand immediately that Popeye Doyle is not someone to mess with. Rough and difficult for his superiors to control, he is a seriously angry man, used to dealing with street scum. He has a drinking problem too, but after seeing the world these policemen live in, you can hardly blame him. That they operate in an environment that is more often than not unrewarding is bad enough. Worse, they must endure hours of mind-nubbing boredom interspersed with intense moments of action. It takes a toll. It's as if a middle-aged, pot-bellied marathon runner were required at gunpoint to sprint a hundred yards every half mile.     

In an emotional sense, Popeye is isolated. Like many cops in his situation, except for his partner, he is alone, figuratively and literally. He is a lonely man who must immerse himself in his work to have a purpose, and who compensates for his isolation by acting tough and aggressive. Friedkin crafted a great scene where Popeye and Cloudy shake down a group of dealers and users in a dingy bar. They are outnumbered, maybe twenty to two. Popeye yells and curses, shoves them against the wall, slaps a few, and acts fearless. Pill boxes litter the floor and are taped to the underside of the bar, quickly discarded by the patrons upon the cops' appearance. They are used to the routine. Popeye concocts a disgusting looking cocktail out the mess, dumping it on the bar as he leaves. "I'll be back," he warns. It's a wonderfully claustrophobic setting in one of the biggest cities in the world.

There is plenty of action. The now famous chase comes about halfway through the film. Charnier sends a sniper to take out Doyle, who's getting too close for comfort and is being a nuisance. The hit fails and Popeye takes off after the shooter, setting off the memorable car chase sequence, a wonderful bit of stunt driving. Hackman (mostly stunt coordinator Bill Hickman) careens down the crowded street like a mad man, beneath the elevated tracks of a West End subway line as the hit man races above in a high-jacked train. He weaves through pedestrians and vehicle traffic, nearly hitting a woman pushing a baby carriage and is side-swiped into an abutment doing the pursuit, a real accident that Friedkin kept in the film. Deservedly considered one of the best of its type ever filmed, it is a thrilling ride for the viewer and surely was an adrenalin-sapping one for the film crew.

Doyle and the sniper have a deadly encounter.
Friedkin used hidden cameras in a scene that takes place earlier at the Times Square/Grand Central subway station. Doyle and Charnier play cat and mouse, jumping in and out of cars, trying to act nonchalant, until the smuggler makes his get-away. It is superbly edited, and considering that none of the other riders knew a movie was being made, as close to realism as you can get.

Catching crooks is tedious business, of course. No film shows this better, and the frustration policemen deal with: red tape; long, boring nights of surveillance; and worse of all, justice denied. The story takes place in winter and in one such scene, Doyle watches Charnier eat a fancy dinner in a restaurant while he nibbles on a donut and drinks old coffee from a Styrofoam cup on the street outside.

Two cops on a stakeout.

When Doyle finally learns how the drugs are being smuggled into the country, he arranges a bust, knowing the exchange is about to made at an abandoned warehouse. The shootout finale goes quick, but Charnier ducks into a decrepit building with Doyle hot on his heals. Some viewers don't like the ending, but I found it appropriate.

Not surprisingly the film was one of the most decorated and critically acclaimed of the decade, garnering eight Oscar nominations and winning five awards, including Hackman as Best Actor, Friedkin as Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Editing.  Don Ellis wrote the jazzy score, which adds wonderfully to the mood, ominous and edgy.

Of course, Friedkin has embellished the story quite a bit. In real life the famous chase scene never happened--Popeye certainly never shot a man in the back--and the depicted bust was made at the homes of the American drug partners, not in the dramatic fashion depicted. 

Other Films by William Friedkin

  • The Exorcist - 1973
  • Sorcerer - 1977
  • To Live and Die in L.A. - 1985
Other Films by Gene Hackman
  • Bonnie and Clyde - 1967
  • The Poseidon Adventure - 1972
  • The Conversation - 1974
  • Hoosiers - 1986
  • Mississippi Burning - 1988
  • Unforgiven - 1992

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