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.|
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!"
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.|
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
- Bonnie and Clyde - 1967
- The Poseidon Adventure - 1972
- The Conversation - 1974
- Hoosiers - 1986
- Mississippi Burning - 1988
- Unforgiven - 1992