The French Connection is one of Hollywood’s all-time great thrillers, a smart and taut film that weds hard-boiled detective mythology, the unmistakeable ambience of 1970s New York, a hefty dose of international intrigue and old-school organized crime machinery, and blisteringly intense action (the film, after all, famously features one of the most gripping car chase scenes ever committed to celluloid). Adapted from the non-fiction book of the same name by Robin Moore, The French Connection follows detectives Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo as they pursue an intercontinental ensemble of scheming criminals smuggling heroin into the United States, including the French criminal mastermind Alain Charnier, novice dealmaker Sal Boca, and lawyer-turned-gangster Joel Weinstock.
Director: William Friedkin
Producers: Philip D'Antoni, G. David Schine, Kenneth Utt
Writers: Ernest Tidyman, Howard Hawks, Robin Moore (novel)
Cinematographer: Owen Roizman
Editor: Gerald B. Greenberg
Music: Don Ellis
Cast: Gene Hackman, Fernando Ray, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco
US Theatrical Release: October 9, 1971
US Distributor: 20th Century Fox
The film catapulted its director William Freidkin from arthouse cinema to Oscar-winning action blockbusters, and he would go on to direct canon-defining genre masterpieces (The Exorcist), campy cult classics (To Live and Die in L.A., Cruising), and enigmatic, difficult curios (Sorcerer). Here, he offers one of his leanest pieces of work, a kinetic but never dumbed-down slice of grit and grime that perfectly balances documentary-inspired realism and carefully orchestrated action.
While the film’s performances are all excellent, it’s Gene Hackman’s iconic Popeye that towers as the central figure. Inexplicably, Freidkin was at first tremendously disappointed by Hackman and resistant to casting him, preferring the likes of Paul Newman or Jackie Gleason. While Freidkin’s alternatives were certainly tremendous actors, it’s hard to see how either of them could have embodied the mercurial Popeye as Hackman does here, filling the character with obsessive drive, determination, and resolve but at the same time moral ambivalence, instability, and recklessness.
It’s a performance that mutates the hard-boiled detectives of classic noir into a new archetype, effectively presaging the ensuing decades of tough-as-nails, committed, complex, and ethically questionable police in cinema and, more recently, television (without The French Connection, would we have had Jimmy McNulty or Rustin Cohle?). This figure’s endearing qualities have begun to strain credulity in recent years, but this originary performance, in the hands of an actor this fierce and charming, is fascinating stuff.
The film’s first half is a slow-burning, naturalistic jumble, tracing both the development of Charnier’s scheme (which involves smuggling heroin into the states by stashing it in an unsuspecting French celebrity’s car) and Popeye and Cloudy’s haphazard discovery of the smuggling network and growing awareness of Charnier’s plan.
As Popeye’s suspicions begin to lead him straight to Charnier, he fumbles, getting noticed while snooping and immediately making himself a target. Before long, he’s dodging sniper bullets on the lawn of a housing project. In an immaculately paced sequence that culminates in the legendary chase scene, Popeye chases the shooter to an elevated subway station, but is unable to make it onto the train. He quickly wrangles a car from a stranger and drives under the tracks, determined to trap his would-be assassin, who meanwhile commandeers the conductor’s car, demanding the train keep moving.
In a sense, the chase provides the film’s heroic climax early--its final act is a brilliant triumph of dissolution over resolution, delivering some justice and some damage, but leaving several questions dangling in the open. It’s a signal that Friedkin, even while deliberately trying to make a leap from the arthouse into the Hollywood big leagues, was unable to leave his darkest and most interesting impulses behind. It’s not hard to see why, in its initial release, The French Connection captured audiences’ and critics’ imaginations and racked up Academy Awards, but decades of growing stature and influence have not dulled its visceral charge.