Written by Ernest Tidyman and directed by William Friedkin, “The French Connection” is a gritty police drama based on a true story. Set mostly in New York City, but with a couple scenes in Marseilles, two NYPD detectives follow a hunch that lead them on a wild chase following suspected criminals with connections to European drug kingpins. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) tail a suspicious character at a local lounge at night’s length to discover that they appear to run a simple corner store in a run-down neighborhood. The pair stick to their instincts, particularly Doyle’s, and wiretap the suspects conversations to see if they can get a bite. They finally do and begin their real case with glee.
This is, obviously, a well known film and there’s nothing truly new that I can add to the conversation other than my own personal interest in it. This academy award winner (5 wins, look ’em up) is revolutionary for its time. The car chase sequence is legendary for crafting a chaotic, frenetic, and white-knuckle chase between Doyle and his suspect on the elevated train car above. But more than that, this film was part of a turn towards nihilism in American cinema. The protagonists of the film are mean, violent, and kinda racist New York Cops who will do everything in their power to catch the greater evil that is the supplier and mastermind of the city’s imported heroin problem, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey)- or as Hackman’s Doyle nicknames him, Frog 1. Most of the films that preceded “The French Connection” held their heroic protagonists up as outright good, or simply icons to model ourselves after. Even the poster for this film is of Hackman’s Doyle shooting a criminal in the back. The heroes of “The French Connection” are foul-mouthed and obsessive, almost destructively so. Luckily for them, that obsessive nature pays off and they’re allowed to pursue the international drug circuit.
Most of the film is a slow burn for its hour and forty-five minute runtime. We follow the two detectives on the pursuit as they follow, watch, and wait for the criminal element to slip up. In these scenes of sitting in cars and waiting, we get a window into the seemingly lost cityscape of yesteryear. Maybe large metropolitan cities are simply cleaner now, but there was an atmosphere about them that lent to the imagination. This hard-boiled crime drama wouldn’t have half of the allure that it does if it weren’t for the setting and score alone (which is bellowing and powerful, or terse and gripping when needed). The world that this film lives in is dirty, abandoned, and a desperate plane of existence- quite perfect for the story it’s telling.
The film is definitely worth a watch if you enjoy this sub-genre of police detective stories. If you appreciate similar films like “Serpico”, “Bullitt”, or the “Dirty Harry” flicks, then you’ll likely get a good time out of this one. Personally, I just enjoyed getting to see Chief Brody as a detective working with Lex Luthor.