French Connection, The (1971): Friedkin’s Best Picture Oscar, Excellent Thriller with Gene Hackman in Top Form

While it was in production, no one expected William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” to either become such a major critical and commercial hit or win the 1971 Best Picture Oscar. But it did, capturing additional Oscars for Director, Actor (Gene Hackman), Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman), and Editing (Jerry Greenberg).

The importance of “French Connection” could not be overestimated. The legitimized the film’s status as one of the best “cop and caper” films of the decade. The film contributed, as scholar James Monaco observed, to the brief resurgence of film noirs in the 1970s, and was also trendsetter in its visual style and visceral excitement. “The French Connection” made the cop film the most popular and the most distinctive genre of the decade, preceding the release of Clint Eastwood’s first “Dirty Harry,” which became a successful series, by a few months.

 

Every element in “The French Connection” is good in its own right, but becomes even better as part of the whole movie. The film has a sharp screenplay, based on the two real-life policemen, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso (who served as technical advisers for the film and also appeared in minor roles), who were involved in tracking down a large shipment of pure heroin hidden in a car transported from Marseilles to New York City.

In addition to being a suspenseful, containing one of the best chase scenes in American film, imitated the_french_connection_1_hackmansince in many pictures, the tale revolves around an interesting and complex character. Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is a tough, vulgar, bigoted cop, obsessed with breaking up the international narcotic ring. To think that the filmmakers considered other actors for the role (Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen, among others) is hard to believe, for it provided Hackman with the best role of his career to date.

“The French Connection” also boasts breathtaking, ultra-realistic cinematography and sound track of the streets of New York, and well-paced editing, all of which contributed to a well-made, entertaining movie.

The chase scene was shot in Brooklyn, at the 86th Street Train Overpass, depicting the car trying  to race the train below. When the train passes overhead, it’s impossible to hear anything.

That said, “French Connection” is not flawless, and critics and viewers expecting sharp characterizations will be disappointed as the narrative presents only one fully developed persona, that of Jimmy Doyle.

the_french_connection_5Praised by most critics, “French Connection” went on to earn in domestic rentals $26 million dollars, ranking 3rd among the year’s top-grossing films.  The movie also generated $12 million in foreign sales. This was a considerable success considering that the budget was really low, about $1.8 million.

 

Read about Friedkin’s most controversial film, Cruising (1980, starring Al Pacino

Cruising (1980): What Motivated Oscar Winning Director William (French Connection) Friedkin

Detailed Plot (Spoiler Alerts)

the_french_connection_3_hackmanIn Marseille, an undercover detective follows Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), a wealthy French criminal who runs a large heroin-smuggling syndicate. The policeman is killed by Charnier’s henchman, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi). Charnier plans to smuggle $32 million worth of heroin into the US by hiding it in the car of an unsuspecting friend, French TV personality Henri Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale).

In New York City, detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) conduct undercover stakeout in Broklyn’s Bdford-Stuyvesant. After seeing a drug transaction take place in a bar, Cloudy goes after the suspect, but he escapes after cutting Cloudy with a knife. Caught and severely beat, he reveals his drug connection.

Popeye and Cloudy go out for drinks at the Copacabana, where Popeye notices Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his wife Angie (Arlene Farber) entertaining mob members. Tailing the couple, they learn that the Bocas, who run a luncheonette, have criminal records: Sal for armed robbery and murder, and Angie for shoplifting. The suspicious detectives make a connection between the Bocas and lawyer Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary), who is part of the narcotics underworld.

Popeye learns from an informant that a major shipment of heroin will arrive in New York. They convince their supervisor, Walt Simonson (Eddie Egan), to wiretap the Bocas’ phones, and obtain additional information. Popeye and Cloudy are joined by federal agent Mulderig (Bill Hickman). Popeye and Mulderig dislike each other, based on bad teaming in the past; Mulderig holds Popeye responsible for a cop’s death.

the_french_connection_2_hackmanDevereaux’s Lincoln Continental Mark III arrives in New York, and Weinstock’s chemist (Pat McDermott) tests the heroin and predicts that the shipment could make $32 million on a small investment. Boca is impatient to make the purchase—Charnier wishes to return to France as soon—while the more experienced Weinstock urges patience, knowing about Boca’s phone being tapped and their investigation.

Charnier realizes he has been observed and escapes on the subway shuttle from Grand Central. He meets Sal Luca in Washington D.C., wherethe latter asks for a delay to avoid the police. Charnier, however, wants to conclude the deal quickly and return to France. On the flight back to New York, Nicoli offers to kill Popeye, but Charnier objects.  Nicoli insists, claiming that they will be back in France before Popeye is replaced.

Nicoli attempts to assassinate Popeye from the roof of his apartment but misses. Popeye chases after the fleeing sniper, who boards an elevated train at the Bay 50th Street Station in Bensonhurst. Doyle commandeers a car and chases along Stillwell Avenue.  Nicoli hijacks the train, holds the driver at gunpoint, and kills a cop. The train reaches the end of the line and slams into another train, hurling the assassin against the glass window. Popeye arrives and sees Nicoli descending from the platform. Niccoli tries to run but is shot dead.

After a stakeout, Popeye impounds Devereaux’s Lincoln and takes it apart searching for the drugs. When Cloudy notes that the vehicle’s shipping weight is 120 pounds over its normal weight, they realize the drugs must still be in the car. They remove the rocker panels and discover the drugs concealed in the vehicle’s body. The police restore the car to its original condition, and return it to Devereaux, who delivers the Lincoln to Charnier.

Charnier drives to an old factory on Wards Island to make the transaction, and Weinstock’s chemist tests one bag for quality. Charnier removes the bags of drugs, and hides the money beneath the rocker panels of another car that was purchased at an auction. With their transaction complete, Charnier and Sal drive off in the Lincoln, but they hit a roadblock with a police force led by Popeye, who playfully waves to Charnier. The police chase the Lincoln back to the old factory, where Sal is killed during a shootout with the police and the others surrender.

Charnier escapes into the old warehouse and Popeye follows him with Cloudy. When Popeye sees a shadowy figure in the distance, he empties his revolver a split-second after shouting a warning. The man killed is not Charnier but Mulderig.  Undaunted, Popeye tells Cloudy that he will get Charnier. After reloading his gun, Popeye runs into another room, and seconds later, a single gunshot is heard.

 

End Note: World Trade Center

Director Friedkin claims that French Connection was among the earliest films to show The World Trade Center.  The whole North Tower and the partially completed South Tower are seen in the background of one scene.

 Sequel

Three years later, Fox made the sequel, “The French Connection II,” also starring Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey, but with a different director, John Frankenheimer, and crew.  With the exception of a chase scene and a few other set-pieces, the movie is a disappointing follow-up.

Cast

Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman)
Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey)
Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider)
Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco)
Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzufi)
Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale)
Mulderig (Bill Hackman)
Marie Charnier (Ann Rebbot)
Weinstock (Harold Gary)
Klein (Sonny Grosso)

Running time: 104 Minutes