THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)

  • Director: William Friedkin
  • Writers: Ernest Tidyman, based on the non-fiction book by Robin Moore
  • Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco, and Marcel Bozzufi
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#93), 5 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – William Friedkin, Best Actor – Gene Hackman, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Roy Scheider, Best Cinematography, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to Starz, Buy or Rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

These days, it’s hard for me to find The French Connection as impressive as those viewing it when it came out probably did, partly because most of its tricks have so entered the lexicon as to not be tricks anymore, and also because I’m not sure I could have rooted for its hero in 1971, much less now. The movie is a hard hitting thriller about police officers chasing down drug lords, while shooting first and asking questions later. In 1971 that was new and and exciting, today it has been done to death. The poster is a still direct from the movie, in which Detective “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) shoots a fleeing suspect in the back. Without The French Connection, would have Dirty Harry, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire, or The Shield? Maybe not. 

The movie is a procedural, but its a procedural shot frenetically, in a primarily handheld style more at home in 2011 than in 1971. Its story follows an investigation by Popeye and his partner, “Cloudy” (Roy Scheider), into a plan by French drug lords to import a large amount of heroin into New York City by hiding it in the frame of a car that’s arriving by ship. The main villain is played by Fernando Rey, who was actually hired by mistake after director William Friedkin told his casting director he was looking for a Spanish actor who had worked with the director Luis Buñuel, but couldn’t remember his name. It turned out he’d meant Francisco Rabal, but Rey took the part and ran with it, becoming a much bigger star in America than he had been previously.

Rey was not the only European influence on the production. Friedkin credits his stylistic direction in the movie with seeing Z, a French-made thriller about a Greek political assassination from 1969, told in a frenetic, cinema verite style. This is most evident in the famous chase scene, often nominated as the great car chase of all time. I hadn’t realized before my first viewing of this movie that it’s actually a car chasing an elevated train. Popeye recklessly careens through traffic as a suspect tries to escape by train above. Some shots from a camera slung on the front bumper of the car seem impossibly dangerous. In fact, the cinematographer “undercranked” the camera at 18 frames per second, meaning that what we’re seeing is essentially in fast motion, in order to increase that feeling for the audience that they’re involved in the chase. Then, it’s that chase that closes with Popeye shooting the criminal in the back. Police advisors objected strenuously to the scene, but Friedkin insisted that it was what the character would do.

I’m not going to sit here and say that Friedkin meant the movie to advocate for the police to just shoot people, because the movie does have ambiguity towards its characters. The movie ends with Hackman rushing, wild-eyed, gun drawn, into the next room after Rey’s crime boss, Alain Charnier. It then cuts to title cards saying that Charnier was never caught, that other conspirators were released due to “lack of evidence,” and that Popeye and Cloudy were reassigned out of narcotics. Their investigation, from their perspective at least, ends in ignominious failure. And the reason for that failure is partly that they aren’t willing to “play by the rules.” The rules are there for a reason. But at the same time, they are the heroes of the movie. The suspense is supposed to come from us wanting Popeye and Cloudy to succeed. So there’s my basic problem with this movie: I have a lot of trouble doing that.

The film is based on a non-fiction book, detailing the drug trade at the time. During this era, most heroin entering the United States came through France. 246 pounds of heroin hidden in the frame of Citroen being brought in by ship had been seized in 1968, very similar to this movie, though the filmmakers changed the car to a Lincoln because, I think, they were worried Americans wouldn’t know what a Citroen was. The two main detectives were based on real-life narcotics detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. Yet all of the characters are renamed and heavily fictionalized. What that really means is that all those title cards at the end are made up. They’re there to tell us what the filmmakers want to tell us, not based on specific real-life events.

The French Connection was not only very influential in terms of its style and storyline, it also came early in the careers of several key Hollywood players. Director William Friedkin had his first really big hit with the movie, having made his debut a few years earlier with a Sonny and Cher musical. He went on direct several more major movies, including The Exorcist and To Live and Die in L.A., and is still working today. Gene Hackman plays Popeye as a tight-wound bundle of nerves throughout, chomping out each word like a weapon, in addition to frequently brandishing actual weapons. It was his first leading role, and he won the Best Actor Oscar. Scheider also broke through in 1971 with his roles in both this movie and Klute, going to a long and successful career highlighted by his leading role in Jaws, considered by many to be the first Summer Blockbuster.

So yes, The French Connection is influential, particularly in the way it shoots action, but its influence pointed the way in a direction I’m not particularly fond of. I’m a big believer that action sequences are only interesting if I can really see what’s going on, if I can get an idea of what the characters are actually doing and how impressive it is. From this movie directly descends the fights in the Jason Bourne films, which are more focused on “conveying energy” than they are on actually allowing us to see what’s happening. These directors aren’t alone, a lot of their movies are hits, and maybe they’re right and I’m wrong. Or it’s just a matter of taste. The French Connection is a perfectly good movie, but I think may just not be to my taste.

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