Title: The French Connection
Release Date: October 7, 1971
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Philip D’Antoni Productions
In this movie we see an expose how Richard Nixon’s war on drugs is used to unleash unholy police violence on Black people. Oh wait! In fact, this film from “liberal” Hollywood wants you to believe the cops are heroes. 15 minutes into this movie I was determined to hate it. But over time my opinion softened. For one thing, it features two of the most phenomenal actors of the time: Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy “Cloudy” Russo. There’s something about Gene Hackman as a person that is just likable even when he plays the most vicious characters here and in Unforgiven (I don’t even know what this feeling is based on since I don’t really know anything about the real life Gene Hackman). In this film, Hackman and Scheider also have an easy camaraderie that makes them feel like real partners.
Friedkin shoots the film in a verite style and most of the film depicts the long hours of Popeye staking out and tailing their suspects, including the French drug dealer kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). I don’t think a modern film would spend a fraction of the time on this details (and I don’t think earlier films did either), but it really builds the tension. There’s a great sequence when Popeye and Charnier play cat and mouse on the 42nd Street Shuttle. All of this leads up to Popeye commandeering a car to chase an assassin riding an elevated train above him. I’m not usually one who cares much for chase scenes but I found this sequence to be ABSOLUTELY EXHILARATING.
The French Connection is a New York City period piece and is shot on location in many recognizable spots in at least three of the five boroughs. Unlike Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy (or even The Out-of-Towners), New York is not depicted as an unredeemable hell-hole but more of the New York I knew and loved as a child. It’s gritty and dangerous around the edges but you also see a lot of ordinary people of all backgrounds going about their business in the background. Despite my first impressions that this film was pure cop-aganda, the film ultimately takes a morally ambiguous stance on whether Popeye’s violent obsession with taking down the French Connection is ultimately worth it. By the end of the film, even Cloudy seems to realize that Popeye is a psycho.