Oscar: Best Picture–French Connection (1971)

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 since 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.

Praised 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.

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