The French Connection (1971)
written by Ernest Tidyman
based on the book The French Connection by Robin Moore
directed by William Friedkin
If the 70s were the finest decade in American film, with its emphasis on realism, moral ambiguity, and narrative experimentation, then The French Connection is its crown jewel. When I first saw it as a teenager, I was shocked by its grittiness and hard-hitting atmosphere, and by its now-legendary car chase in which tough New York City cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) recklessly speeds after an elevated train in pursuit of a hitman. Seeing it now as an adult, I am even more impressed by the film’s commitment to its grainy aesthetic, lived-in characterizations, and unsparing tone.
The French Connection was shot on location during winter, and it shows: When Popeye and his partner Cloudy (Roy Scheider) stand outside a restaurant while they stake out French heroin smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), you can tell the actors are fucking cold. Director William Friedkin, who’d go on to direct The Exorcist (1973) and Sorcerer (1977), wanted a documentary feel, and the decision informs every frame, from the grainy cinematography by Owen Roizman to the production design: When Cloudy visits Popeye in his shitty apartment, and you can almost smell the sweat and alcohol on the bedsheets; seedy bars reek of smoke, drugs, and cheap cologne; a bullet hits a woman passing by on the street, and her body unceremoniously slumps to the ground.
Still, what’s most striking about The French Connection is the character of Popeye himself, and not because of how great a policeman he is, but rather because of how awful. He’s responsible for the death of another cop in a previous case; he roughs up civilians and savagely punches an informer; he impatiently tails Charnier and ridiculousy gives himself away; and as he races a Pontiac LeMans through the streets of Brooklyn, he puts the life of pedestrians in danger. His morals are also questionable: Popeye is an alcoholic, a womanizer, a racist who says stuff like “Never trust a nigger” without batting an eye. By film’s end, he’s shot a criminal in the back and caused the death of an FBI agent. By all accounts, this is a guy who gets by through sheer brute force, and it’s this obvious disregard for rules that actually makes him “indispensable.” In many ways, he’s cut from the same cloth as another cop antihero from the same year, Harry Callahan of Dirty Harry (1971). Both men are certain that, in order to catch criminals, the end always justifies the means… and that means operating on the outskirts of the laws they’ve sworn to uphold.
The final moment in The French Connection has Popeye running into a room after Charnier. A single gunshot is heard. Title cards come up and we read that the French trafficker has actually escaped, and both Popeye and Cloudy have been transferred to another unit. Perhaps Popeye’s irresponsible behavior has caught up with him? It’s unclear… but unlikely. But what’s indisputable is that the line between criminal and cop has been blurred forever.
Carlos I. Cuevas