“You still picking’ your feet in Poughkeepsie?”
William Friedkin’s The French Connection is a near perfect thriller. In 1971, it defined a documentary style, a mimicry of the European New Wave movements, that became commonplace in 70s Hollywood. It also singlehandedly built the legacy of the great Gene Hackman, who owns every moment of this picture, striding confidently through the neorealism settings, larger than life and disparate from the police code he honors.
Hackman is Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a hard-charging narcotics detective who keeps his blood boiling beating the streets of New York City, busting low-level dealers and junkies. Doyle is a little bit of a racist, a moderate drunk, and he isn’t afraid to skirt the rules and work the angles to get the crooks. But there is something burning deep inside Doyle, tempered only briefly at times by his more level-headed – but equally as tough – partner, Buddy (Roy Scheider, great as usual). For all of his flaws and questionable morals, Jimmy Doyle is blinded by righteousness. No matter how much disdain he may carry with him to these dive bars and city streets he shakes down, Doyle is driven by a truthful desire to clean things up.
When a French heroin-smuggling ring works its way from the banks of the Como to the back alleys of Doyle’s stomping grounds, Doyle and Buddy see this as their one and only shot to bring in the big fish and simultaneously save their careers. “What have ya brought in?” their Captain argues. “Some bellhop who had three joints in his sock?” Doyle and Buddy need this bust.
This is a grand smuggling ring, one typically told in sweeping cinematic style and flamboyance. At least these days. But not in Friedkin’s film. The director’s dedication to his documentary style remains true, even when Doyle and Buddy’s investigation reaches international scope. The investigation, seen early on in surveillance from a car or rattling the cages of informants, is filmed as if the audience is a third member of the team. We ride along in the back seat, peer out through the car windows. We are privy to private talks, and we stand at the end of the bar while Doyle cleans up the small-time collection of drugs. It’s beyond immersive, demanding your attention, and rewarding you for it.
Then there’s the car chase, the single most defining moment in the French Connection. This chase was Friedkin’s first true dalliance with such an action set piece, but not his last (if you haven’t seen To Live and Die in LA and the chase there, make it a priority). There’s also that little note that Friedkin, Hackman, and the crew didn’t bother with setting up the chase, announcing their intentions, or seeking out any permits. Which is astounding given the finished product. The chase is also unique in that it’s Doyle in hot pursuit of an elevated train. He must navigate the streets, all the while staying close to the train as his potential assassin.
The plot of the film is secondary to the singleminded drive driving Doyle to amorality in his investigation. This is Doyle’s story, framed with a high-profile smuggling ring that serves to motivate this hard-nosed detective who only lives to get the collar. The French Connection grabbed five Oscars at the 1972 ceremony, including Best Picture, Best Director for Friedkin, Best Actor for Hackman, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Ernest Tidyman, whose dialogue is sharp, quick, and textured by the streets in which these characters inhabit. It defined a style, it helped bring neorealism to America (see any parallels with this new style and the smuggling ring?), and announced new powers in the industry in both Friedkin and Hackman.