The French Connection

  • Title:  The French Connection
  • Director:  William Friedkin
  • Date:  1971
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Genre:  Action, Drama
  • Cast:  Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

The French Connection was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1972 (for the films of 1971) and won five. It’s on the AFI list of top 100 American films, and I bought it because it’s a well-known film I had never seen, and to be honest because Roy Scheider is in it, whom I really like as an actor.

I think the film really is a time capsule — it’s hard to tell how revolutionary the film would have been in the early 1970s, watching it for the first time in 2012. And it’s downright strange how this film seemed more odd to me than favorite classics of mine from the 1930s and 1940s. However, that doesn’t make it a bad film. It is a very good film, it’s just somewhat hard to relate to it. But it does explain a heck of a lot about 70s television — I can clearly see the connection between The French Connection and Starsky and Hutch, Streets of San Francisco or even The Professionals.

The film is based on a real case, one of the biggest Heroin busts in US history. That case inspired a true crime book called, The French Connection by Robin Moore. However, according to the various special features on the film, and the short/cut actor commentary most of the film was inspired by the technical advisers of the film, Eddie “Popeye” Egan and Sonny “Cloudy” Russo the two cops who made the case. Also, the director, Friedkin, and actors Scheider and Hackman spent considerable time doing research, preparing, and following Egan and Russo around on the streets of New York. That research combined with Friedkin’s background in shooting documentaries certainly added to the feel of the film.

The film does have a gritty, down and dirty, realism to it. Hackman’s Poyeye Doyle is not a nice guy — one of the issues I had watching the film was not just the swearing but the racist language used in the film. However, even with all his faults – Doyle is a good cop. He and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo have the highest number of convictions in the Narcotics department of the Brooklyn, New York, NY police department. Cloudy (Scheider in only his second film role) holds back Doyle, occasionally playing good cop to Doyle’s bad cop. But really, both are good cops — though realistically grim, gritty, tough, and nasty.

The plot involves trying to catch a French godfather who’s sending in multi-million dollar Heroin shipments into New York every six weeks or so. He uses a French actor to get a car in to the US, and the drugs are hidden in the rocker panels (floor boards under the car doors) of the car. But it takes a while for Doyle and Russo to put together what’s going on — and I had to watch the film twice to figure it out (though the second time I had one of the two commentaries on, so I wasn’t paying as close attention to what was going on, on the screen). The film shows the cops on long stakeouts and tails where not much happens until they spot one of the principals meeting a known drug kingpin. This gets them two wiretaps, which leads to the Frenchman calling to set-up a meeting. Before long, the case is coming together.

One of the best scenes in the film is a cat-and-mouse scene between Hackman and The Frenchman at the heart of the case on a subway. The two jump on and off and on and off a subway car – but in the end the Frenchman escapes. However, he puts a hit on Doyle.

This leads to the other big scene in the film, and the one it’s famous for — the car chase. The chase starts when a sniper shoots at Doyle, hitting an innocent woman, and causing havoc. Doyle finally gets to the roof, finds the guy’s rifle, then sees him fleeing the building, and gives chase on foot. When the sniper jumps a elevated train, Doyle commandeers a car and gives chase. The chase is pure chaos and incredibly done considering it was all practical. No computer-generated effects here, and no carefully plotted storyboards either. Just a gifted stunt driver, a car with a siren, and a few (though not enough) blocked streets. Most of the exciting parts of the chase were stunts, however, at one point a civilian car pulled out and hit Hackman while he was driving the car as fast as possible. Hackman was pushed into a metal support beam for the L. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident. However, the chase was put together in pieces:  a stunt driver named Hickman; Hackman actually driving with a camera car besides him; Hackman driving with a cameraman in the car. A stunt woman played the woman with the baby carriage that Doyle nearly hits. Meanwhile, on the train, the sniper is causing panic – taking over the train, shooting a train worker, and causing the driver of the train to have a heart attack, before crashing the train itself into another train. But the sequence is breath-taking. The chase ends with Doyle cornering the sniper on the stairs to the L station (which go sharply up because it’s an outdoor elevated train and station), and he shoots the now unarmed sniper in the back.

The film doesn’t have a lot of exposition explaining what’s going on — it trusts the audience to follow along for the ride. It’s also not a film filled with stunning visuals, or “movie moments”, rather it’s a grim, gritty, dirty, realistic-looking, almost documentary style of film. The film is so rough at times it’s almost uncomfortable to watch it. But it’s also stunningly compelling – and Hackman and Scheider are both brilliant.

Throughout the film there’s a huge, brown, Lincoln – by the end of  the film it’s almost menacing. Doyle and Russo manage to confiscate the car, get it stripped at a police garage, and finally when they’ve almost given up, locate the Heroin in the rocker panels (the floor boards under the front doors). When the French actor shows up to claim his car, they give it back, complete with the Heroin so they can make the bust. I honestly don’t know where they got a second, identical brown Lincoln, because the one they had was trashed.

The cops follow the Lincoln to an abandoned building, there’s a shootout and total chaos. But the brilliant bit is the ultimate end  — Doyle enters the building alone in search of the Frenchman. Russo, after aiding in the capture of the bad guys, goes in after his partner. Doyle’s so tense he nearly shoots Russo, but Russo warns him off with, “It’s me, it’s me!” FBI agent Mulderig isn’t so lucky — thinking he’s the Frenchman, Doyle shoots him. But the last shot, of Doyle walking though this dark, mucky, dirty, corridor-like building, walking into the distance, then there’s a gunshot, and the screen goes black, that’s brilliant, and makes the film worth watching and re-watching.

There is character in the film, and an interesting relationship between the two cops, but really I could have done with a lot more of that. Still, definitely worth the time to watch, and re-watch, and own.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 Stars
Next Film:  Either Royal Wedding or Cabaret which I also recently bought