French Connection, The (United States, 1971)

June 17, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
French Connection, The Poster

The early 1970s was a time of great experimentation for filmmakers. The fertile climate allowed directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Alan J. Pakula, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas to showcase their unique visions. Into their midst came William Friedkin’s The French Connection, an inexpensive, indie film that became not only 1971’s third-highest grossing film but also a Best Picture Oscar winner. It established William Friedkin as a major cinematic force (whose follow-up to this film would be The Exorcist) and gave Gene Hackman his only Lead Actor Academy Award (he subsequently won a second citation, in the Supporting Actor category, for Unforgiven). It also showcased what has often been referred to as the best car chase in the history of cinema – a distinction that can be defended more than 45 years later.

The French Connection is a fictionalized version of Robin Moore’s book chronicling the efforts of two New York City narcotics detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, to complete the biggest drug-related bust in the five boroughs. Although, as they say, “the names have been changed,” the filmmakers meticulously researched the case to ensure a sense of authenticity. Egan and Grosso served not only as on-set consultants but appeared on-screen in supporting roles. (At one point, Friedkin, having trouble casting the lead, considered the possibility of Egan playing himself.)

The storyline is deceptively straightforward, focusing on the efforts of two cops, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), to stop a major drug shipment from hitting the streets. The “French Connection” refers to the origin of the shipment, which is handled by “Frog One,” Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), who is working with his main New York contact, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco). Also involved are a French TV star, Devereaux (Frederic De Pasquale), whose car is used to transport the drugs around NYC, and assassin Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), who does Charnier’s dirty work. The French Connection follows a classic three-act structure. In the first part, Popeye and Buddy learn about the shipment. In the second, whose centerpiece is the chase sequence, they track down the participants. And in the third, they spring the trap. The film offers an intentionally ambiguous open ending (followed by a few “what became of them” captions) that represents the least historically accurate aspect of the movie.

The element of The French Connection that most forcefully sets it apart from other cop thrillers is the gritty, street level, pseudo-documentary approach favored by Friedkin, who isn’t afraid to use handheld cameras and unusual angles to push the viewer into the action. When asked about his inspiration, Friedkin has frequently cited Costa-Gavras’ Z. If one was to watch the two films back-to-back, similarities in their respective aesthetics are evident. Friedkin often employs first-person shooting. Never is this more effective than during the car chase – with Popeye careening through streets under the tracks to catch a speeding train. The immediacy of the camerawork (cinematographer Owen Roizman undercranked the bumper-mounted camera to 18 frames per second to enhance the illusion of speed) heightens tension and suspense. Clips/excerpts from the chase scene don’t do it justice – it needs to be experienced in context and in its entirety for the full impact to register.

Over the years, car chases have becoming increasingly more complex, with many of the most recent making heavy use of physics-defying CGI. In the process, however, these overproduced action sequences have become antiseptic, with about as much excitement as a videogame promo. By comparison, The French Connection’s contribution is a white-knuckle experience in large part because of its verisimilitude. Filmed using real cars (at least one of the collisions is real) and partially improvised, it’s a remarkable achievement that feels unlike anything made prior to it or in its wake.

The French Connection is many things but one of its most compelling (and infrequently mentioned) ingredients is how it works as a study of obsession. Charnier is Moby Dick to Popeye’s Ahab. The detective, who by all accounts has little to live for beyond the job, will stop at nothing to kill his whale. He is reckless and, as we see in the surprising final minutes, unconcerned about anyone who gets in his way – ally or enemy. The ambiguity of the ending (a gunshot) underscores the ultimate futility of obsession. A fictional sequel, The French Connection II, provides closure (both Hackman and Rey return) for those who may be frustrated by this film’s conclusion.

According to the filmmakers, Gene Hackman was nowhere near the top of the pecking order to play Popeye. (Friedkin’s “dream choice” was Paul Newman, but he was out of the film’s budget range.) Egan was violently opposed. As so often happens, however, the performance became so indelible that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. The Academy agreed, awarding Hackman the Best Actor trophy (beating Peter Finch, Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, and Topol). Roy Scheider earned a nomination (his first of two) in a breakthrough role that resulted in a string of high-profile opportunities. Although there’s sufficient chemistry between Hackman and Scheider, The French Connection wasn’t envisioned as a “cop buddy film” and, in large part because of its aesthetic, it doesn’t come across as such.

The 1970s contributed a number of memorable movie quotes: “You talkin’ to me?,” “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning,” and “May the Force be with you.” (To name a few.) The French Connection’s contribution is “You ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” Okay, it’s not “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” but it’s sufficiently weird that it gained notoriety. (I’m not sure how the residents of the New York town felt about it.)

With the Academy Awards ceremony often honoring films “in the moment” rather than with a view to their likely historical importance, many Best Picture winners over the years have faded like poorly-preserved photographs. The French Connection, however, joins other 1970s victors in having weathered the tides of time. Viewed today, it’s like a perfectly-made period piece, capturing details of ‘70s-era police activities without a hint of nostalgia. The chase holds up and the performances remain compelling. There’s nothing about The French Connection that seems dated. Its approach and style contrast markedly with the artificiality and lack of ingenuity that has infected the genre over the years.

French Connection, The (United States, 1971)

Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frederic De Pasquale, Bill Hickman, Eddie Egan, Sonny Grosso
Home Release Date: 2019-06-17
Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman, based on the book by Robin Moore
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Music: Don Ellis
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 1971-10-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Brief Nudity)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1