AFI Countdown Challenge #70: The French Connection

The French Connection is well-remembered for a rather brutal and intense car chase scene, a moment that stands out in an otherwise intellectual film.  It’s not a particularly action-packed piece of cinema aside from that one moment.  The French Connection masterfully builds tension throughout the film by offering contrasts between two opposing forces.

But yeah, that car chase is pretty damn cool.

The French Connection offers a view of two sides in the War on Drugs trying to pull off or prevent a  big deal in 1970s New York City.  On one side is Alain Charnier (Spanish actor Fernando Rey), or as the cops refer to him “Frog One”.  He’s a very wealthy man, and we see in multiple scenes that he lives a certain high class lifestyle.  He also is a major drug trafficker trying to slip some heroin into the United States.

On the other side are two New York City Narcotics detectives, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider).  The film spends more focus on Popeye than Cloudy, and we can see he is in every possible way the opposite of Charnier.  He’s a drunk, physically abusive to suspects, a womanizer, perhaps a bit racist, and lives in a small apartment sleeping on a fold-out sofa from the looks of things.  Comparing that to Charnier, who has a beautiful young love interest of his own, more money than he really needs to worry about, a seaside mansion in France, and when he gets to New York we see him dining in fine restaurants.  There’s an intelligence to both Charnier and Doyle, but there is also a distinctiveness in how the two are presented in terms of class.  Charnier is a bit arrogant, someone used to getting his way, and he underestimates the police.  Doyle works off instinct more than anything else, and there’s some satisfaction when the end of the movie rolls around and Doyle gives Charnier the same dismissive wave Charnier had given him earlier when Charnier had realized he was being followed and managed to evade Doyle in the subway.

That wave means nothing because somehow Charnier slips away in the end.

The movie is actually based on something of a true story about what was at the time the largest narcotics seizure in American history (or something like that), and boyh Doyle and Russo’s characters were based on real cops, who not only supplied the nicknames but also had small roles in the film itself.

That said, as good as both Rey and Scheider are, this is clearly Hackman’s film.  First seen disguised as a street Santa Claus, he’s a man who has the odd arrest charge of “picking your feet in Poughkeepsie” and isn’t particularly well-liked by other cops.  He’s not the Dirty Harry Callaghan type who only really has problems with his immediate supervisors.  Dirty Harry gets results.  This film ends with Doyle and Russo, as the end captions tell us, transferred to other units while most of the surviving criminals either get clean away or serve short or dismissed sentences.  The only real jail time goes to a French actor whose car was used to smuggle the drugs into the country, and he seemed to be relatively ignorant as to what exactly he was involved in.

No, the Doyle character just has a raw animal magnetism.  We may not want to spend time with the real Doyle as he seems abrasive and rough, but watching a man like him do his job is enough, enough so for Hackman to reprise the role for a sequel that I have never gotten around to seeing and for Ed O’Neil to play the character in a made-for-TV movie.  How does Doyle catch wind of the potential shipment?  After a long day busting small time crooks, he convinces Russo to go out to the Copacabana and just happens to spot a small-timer schmoozing some bigger fish in the drug trade.  He and Russo follow the small fish around and find some suspicious activity and that leads to the French.  And while this isn’t what I would call a film noir, it does have noir elements, such as a bleak ending where Doyle has accidentally killed another cop before running off into a run-down warehouse looking for the man he only knows as “Frog One”.  The bad guys are not really punished, and the drug trade continues.

In many ways, this film stands as a reinvention of the police drama.  Doyle is not a shining example of morality, but neither is anyone else around him.  He doesn’t catch the criminal in the end though he is instrumental in disrupting the man’s business.  He’s a slob, quick to anger, but with a wily way of doing things.  Both he and Russo have disguises to wear on the job as they cozy up to suspects, though I’d be hard pressed to say whether I preferred Doyle’s Santa or Russo’s mailman more.  They enforce the law, but no one would call them role models.

Beyond all that, you really can’t discuss The French Connection without bringing up the car chase.  Charnier approves a hit on Doyle, and a sniper attempts it.  Doyle is saved when the sniper misses and hits a woman with a baby carriage instead (more depressing imagery for the film is a new mother apparently dying and a baby abandoned by the cop crying…it’s for a good reason as Doyle needs to catch the sniper, but that doesn’t change the fact the baby may not have a mother now).  The assassin manages to get on an elevated train, and Doyle has to follow in a commandeered car.

That car takes a beating as Doyle desperately tries to keep up with the train, and the realism of the scene was helped immensely by director William Friedkin not asking the city for permission to shoot part of it.  That was real traffic and real onlooker reactions for parts of that scene.  The frantic speed, the dodging of cars and baby carriages, the fast cuts, and every element of that scene have gone on to influence other directors over time, and for this site, most notably might be Christopher Nolan for his own car chase in Batman Begins.  For a movie that mostly plays cat-and-mouse between a drug smuggler and the cops, where simply following a guy on foot without being seen is about as tense as things get, the car chase brings an energy to the movie that it may not have needed but certainly made memorable.

And, according to Friedkin, it was the car chase that made him want to direct the movie.  Why?  He was living with the daughter of classic film director Howard Hawks and asked Hawks for an honest assessment of his own work.  Hawks said Friedkin’s movies were “lousy” and suggested the younger man try something with a chase scene in it.

The rest is cinematic history, and one that won Friedkin a few Academy Awards in the process.

After I finished my Top 25 list, I considered there were a few I missed that could have gone up.  The French Connection would have been one of those, but I’m satisfied with my Top 25 list.  This movie, though, would have been a top contender for any follow-ups that may one day exist.

NEXT UP:  We’re going back to the West for the 1953 classic Shane.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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