The French Connection June 23, 2017
he French Connection (1971) is a film encompassed mostly of frenetic energy and adrenaline. Essentially it's one long hot pursuit hopped up on obsession and the thrills that come when trying to outrun fate when it’s only a few feet behind you. Here is a movie in which
story doesn’t much matter — it's a feature only as good as its style, dialogue, and vitality. Lose its artistic sensibilities and its slick attitude and maybe it wouldn’t look and feel like much more than a quintessential cops-and-robbers movie.
But the film is, as its large sum of accolades and relative billing as a classic have shown, pretty damn good. In 1971, it was inimitable, game-changing. And decades later it remains to be so, despite its obvious influence on a countless number of filmmakers — especially artists dedicated to topping their thrillers with a dollop of kitchen-sink grit — and genres.
Today The French Connection is best known for its technically astounding car-chase sequence, during which a cop has to navigate the restless streets of New York City at 70 miles per hour in order to stay in close contact with a drug smuggler on board a locomotive. And like Bullitt (1968), a car chase centric police procedural to which it is often compared, there’s good reason that single sequence sticks around so long in the memory: it defies convention, remaining to be the masterstroke of filmmaking it was when the film’s director, William Friedkin, first conceived it.
But it is also so much more than its car chase, namely an analysis of how one man’s professional zeal has gotten so out of hand over the years it has begun to obsess him. In the movie, this man, Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), reasons that he’s a generally good person fighting against the forces of drugs and corruption.
But the reality is is that he’s an officer with an insatiable thirst for success — look at the way he risks the lives of others, driving through the streets of the city without a care, throwing away any potential lead away like a piece of garbage once he gets what he needs. All he wants to do is get to his final destination. He isn’t generically likable, either: he's racist, cynical, selfish, and reckless. And yet he remains riveting to watch — his passion is tangible. We want to see him best the bad guys he’s so bent on defeating.
In The French Connection, Doyle, along with his partner, Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider), is hell-bent on stopping a massive drug-smuggling scheme. Thirty-two million dollars worth of pure heroin, it seems, is en route to the states thanks to French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).
The film needs no more set up than that. Most of the movie is either spent watching Doyle and Russo put together the machinations of the plot or watching them pursue the people who put together the plot in the first place. The disparate assortment of villains sometimes makes the come-up feel labyrinthine. But once The French Connection really gets going it’s something of a cinematic runaway train, loud and breakneck and unstoppable. Its sound and its fury is stunning to behold — shame that its epilogue reveals that all the hard work on the part of its protagonists wasn’t all that worth it after all.
But The French Connection need not be much else besides a virtuoso exercise in filmmaking and in acting. Friedkin, who would next make the classic horror film The Exorcist (1973), displays a directorial physicality that makes the movie come alive in the way its realism reigns. His technical innovations, specifically the shaky camerawork and the staging of the aforementioned car/train chase, bring vast urgency that makes everything feel as explosive and in-the-moment as it did nearly 50 years ago. Hackman is a spellbinding embodiment of the anti-hero, equal parts contradictory and detestable, charismatic and brawny, and Scheider is excellent as the rugged second banana who seems to fear nothing besides his own neuroses.
As in all great action features, suspense is a key component to overarching success. But more critical is a director who sells his material as if his life depended on it and a cast of characters who prove themselves to be more than the products of a screenwriter’s pen. The French Connection is no exception. B+