The French Connection (1971)

Director: William Friedkin

Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frederic De Pasquale, Bill Hickman

Written by:Ernest Tidyman and (based on the book) Robin Moore

Running Time: 104 mins

Original UK Cert: X

Original US Release: 7th October 1971

When you think of The French Connection, you instantly think car chase. Still regarded, along with Bullitt, as one of the best, this is a film that is much more than just a nail-biting, heart-pounding chase through the streets of New York. Based on true events, this is a raw and often  utterly tense cop thriller that breaks the mould of other films in the genre, thanks to a grainy, realistic feel to the cinematography and a top-notch central performance from Gene Hackman.

Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and his partner, Buddy Russo, are the best narcotics cops in New York, with a record 100 busts in one year. They live, breathe and often sleep crime fighting. On a night out, Popeye notices a man flashing some cash and instantly gets suspicious. The team of detectives decide to follow the man and it soon becomes apparent that he is involved with some pretty fancy players, just in from France. As Popeye and Russo dig deeper, they discover that the head Frenchman is an industrious drug dealer Alain Charnier or Frog 1 and this could be the biggest drugs deal in the history of New York.

William Friedkin’s film is a heady mix of explosive set pieces and quietly unsettling stakeouts. In fact, most of the film is built around watching our two unlikely anti-heroes watching cars or restaurants for long periods of time. yet, this doesn’t seem to matter. It’s part of the story, of how dedicated these men are to the job that they will spend hours upon hours just sitting and watching and waiting.

These scenes are necessary to then count-balance the big set pieces, which, again involve Popeye and Russo following people and the more they follow the more tense the thriller becomes. It is a masterstroke by both Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman that they have created these impossibly long sequences where dialogue isn’t important but will Popeye get his man and the longer they go on, the more intense they become.

Aside the obvious, one of the big sequences involves Popeye following Frog 1 through the streets of New York, losing him, finding him, losing him again and eventually ending with a brilliant game of cat and mouse on the New York subway. It’s a masterful stroke that keeps you on the edge of your seat, as Popeye tries to be one step ahead but not knowing that his prey has the better of him.

Then there’s the legendary car chase, a scene that last a whole 15 minutes and still has the power to thrill as it did all those years when it first came out. From the shooting on the roof to the gritty journey as Popeye chases his assailant, who is travelling on a train above him while the cop drives a car through the busy streets. One accident that occurs is genuine, with the driver not realising that a film was being made and is hit. (The producers paid for the damages). It is that level of realism that makes this one of the finest moments in cinema history.

I mentioned that the film was more than just one long chase. The performances are outstanding from a strong international cast. Fernando Rey brings a quiet level of class as Frog 1, while Roy Scheider is always worth watching as Russo. The film, however, belongs to Hackman.

A massively flawed character, an alcoholic bigot with a thing for the ladies and a man still dedicated to the cause, Hackman was worried about the level of racism he had to use, and it is hard to warm to his approach. It’s a perfect example of the screen’s anti-heroes that came from 70’s cinema. A man who has seen better days, who uses extreme tactics to get the answers he wants (the bizarre questions “Were you picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?” to disarm the suspect into confessing) and his general attitude to the world makes him incredibly disagreeable but his level of commitment to the job is admired. He may not be a Dirty Harry but he has heart to clean up the streets and it is a credit to Hackman for creating such a role. He, deservedly, won the Oscar for best actor.

The French Connection is full of untapped energy and a level of rawness that makes it unsettling in places. It’s a perfect example that you don’t need continuous action sequences to make an impressive cop thriller and this 5 time Oscar winner, including best picture, is still highly respected in the film world. A classic cop thriller that managed to produce a superb sequel too. You can’t ask for anything more.

5/5

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