The French Connection: Gene Hackman’s dynamic, star-making performance powers William Friedkin’s avant-garde Policier

The French Connection(1971), starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey, and directed by William Friedkin from Robin Moore’s book, is a brilliant cop thriller set in New York city, which pushed the boundaries of mainstream filmmaking.

In the 1960s, two New York cops, Eddie Eagan and Sonny Grosso, busted a cocaine shipment worth $32 million that was being smuggled into New York from Marseille. This was the biggest drug bust up until that time in Narcotics history. The criminal responsible for this cocaine smuggling was Jean Jehan, who fought in the resistance alongside Charles De Gaulle, and hence had enough clout that he was never convicted or extradited. The circumstances that lead to the drug bust was more fantastical than any crime fiction; and it came about because the cops followed their instincts more than anything else. Soon enough, offers started pouring in for the cops to translate their story into the book form, and it fell to author, Robin Moore to transform it into a fictionalized account in his book, The French Connection. that came out in 1969. When producer, Philip D’Antoni bought the movie rights to the book, he had envisioned a realistic, documentary style telling of this story keeping in with its real-life roots. For this reason, he hired the young William Friedkin as director who was just coming up in the business and had extensive experience as a documentary filmmaker. Friedkin and D’Antoni cooked up a screenplay with the help of Earnest Tidyman , who had previously written Shaft. But when they submitted the script to the studios, every studio in town passed. In the end, Twentieth Century-Fox production heads Richard Zanuck and David Brown agreed to produce the film only because they were about to be fired, and they had stashed away $1.5 million dollars. Friedkin agreed to bring in the film for that amount, and thus the film went into production; the film ultimately went 300k over-budget, but still, it was a very low budget film. Casting for the lead roles also proved problematic; the lead role of Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (the fictional counterpart of Eddie Eagan) was offered to Peter Boyle, Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Breslin, but it didn’t work out for one reason or the other. Finally, it fell to Gene Hackman, who had made a name for himself as a supporting actor in films like Bonnie and Clyde and Downhill Racer; this was to be his first starring role. The role of Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Sonny Grasso) went to another up and coming actor, Roy Scheider. The main villain, Alain Charnier, was accidentally cast with Director Luis Bunuel regular, Fernando Rey; Friedkin actually wanted another Bunuel actor, but the casting director messed up, but it turned out to be for the betterment of the film. The film went into production in the winter of 1970, and it was one of coldest winters in the history of New York city. This made the shooting difficult, as the film was completely shot on real New York locations, mostly outdoors; but it gave the film a grittiness and realism that it wouldn’t had otherwise. More problems were in store, when Gene Hackman, unable to come to terms with the rough, racist nature of the character he’s playing, wanted to quit after the first day. But Friedkin persisted and worked on the actor meticulously to extract an extraordinary performance out of him; a performance so good that it won Hackman a best actor Oscar. D’Antoni, having produced the cop thriller Bullitt, wanted to include a car chase sequence in the film (not in the book) to top the Bullitt car chase; hence they came up with Popeye’s car chasing an elevator train; the sequence, considered the greatest car chase sequence in movies, was accomplished in a most dangerous and irresponsible manner, with most of the shooting done during peak city hour traffic, with no permits or safety measures. When the film was finally released in October of 1971, it became a big hit, bagged 5 Oscars (including best picture and best director) and rocketed Friedkin and Hackman to stardom. The film proved to be a trendsetter, with several gritty cop thrillers like Badge 373, The Seven Ups and the Dirty Harry films being made in its wake.

The French Connection begins like the two other Friedkin films of the 1970s; with a prologue set in an exotic place that will later find an indirect link with the main body of the film. In The Exorcist(1973), Friedkin opens the film in Iraq, where Max Von Sydow’s priest has his first encounter with evil. In Sorcerer(1977), the prologue features different countries like France, Israel and U.S.A. With each film, we can see Friedkin becoming more and more grand and ambitious, and he would soon follow in the footsteps of several directors of the 1970s, like Michael Cimino and Peter Bogadanovich, who became more ambitious, egotistical and profligate, and finally destroyed their careers. But in The French Connection, Friedkin is at the gates of acclaim and stardom, and we can see him at his innovative best, and his ability to achieve great things with very little money. The film opens in Marseille: an undercover detective is seen following Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), a wealthy French criminal who runs a large heroin-smuggling syndicate. As the flic is returning home after finishing his shift, he’s  killed by Charnier’s henchman, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi). We’ll see this habit of Nicoli- of brutally taking out his master’s pursuer- lead to his doom when he’ll try the same tactics with Popeye Doyle later in the film. The film then abruptly cuts to Brooklyn, where detectives, Popeye and Cloudy, are seen chasing down a perp. From their vigorous interrogation of the guy, we get a full picture of the contrasting characters and work methods of the two. Popeye is brutal, violent, obsessive, and abusive ‘bad cop’ to Cloudy’s cool, calm and friendly ‘good cop’. Popeye unsettles the criminal by asking rubbish questions like: “Did you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?“, while Cloudy asks direct questions about the crime. The baffled perp ends up answering Cloudy’s questions correctly, and thus, the detectives get the lead they want.

After these two sequences that set up the main characters of the film, we dive right into the “The French connection case”; it begins rather uneventfully, when Popeye and Cloudy goes out for drinks at the Copacabana, where Popeye notices Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his wife Angie (Arlene Farber) entertaining mob members. His cop’s instincts piqued, Popeye decides to tail the couple, and finds out that they own a modest luncheonette. So how come they have so much dough to throw around with mobsters?. Investigating further, Popeye and cloudy finds out that they are in league with the corrupt mob lawyer Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary). Armed with this information, as well as a tip off from an informant about an imminent arrival of a large shipment of heroin into New York, the detectives convinces their superior, Walt Simonson (Eddie Egan) to wiretap the Bocas’ phones. Popeye and Cloudy are joined by federal agents Mulderig (Stuntman, Bill Hickman) and Klein (real-life cop, Sonny Grosso) in the investigation; Popeye and Mulderig detests each other, as Popeye caused the death of a cop while on a previous operation. Popeye and Cloudy finally make a breakthrough when they hear on the phone, a Frenchman making contact with Boca about a drug shipment. The big guy in France is Alain Charnier, who has hatched a plan to smuggle $32 million worth of cocaine in the Lincoln Continental car of an unsuspecting French T.V. star, Henry Devereaux(Frederic de Pasquale). Devereaux’s vehicle arrives in New York City, along with Charnier and Nicoli. But they cannot conclude the deal with Boca as they realize that the detectives are on their tail. After cleverly giving Popeye the slip in the streets of New York, Charnier is impatient to conclude the deal and return to France quickly. Realizing that Popeye is the real danger to the conclusion of the deal, Nicoli attempts to kill Popeye by shooting at him from the roof of his apartment, but misses. Popeye chases Nicoli, 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. Nicoli tries to run but is shot dead. Devereaux’s Lincoln is impounded by the detectives; the car is stripped down and searched thoroughly. Finally, they find the drugs hidden in the rocker panels. They put the drugs back, restore the car to its original condition, and wait for Charnier and gang to conclude the deal- which takes place at an old factory on Wards Island. After the deal is done, Charnier and Sal drive off in the Lincoln, but hit a roadblock with a large contingent of police led by Popeye. The police chase the Lincoln back to the factory, where Boca is killed during a shootout while most of the other criminals surrender. In his attempt to shoot down Charnier, Popeye accidentally shoots and kills Mulderig. The film ends on an ambiguous note, as it’s not clear whether or not Popeye had managed to kill Charnier.

There are two aspects of Friedkin’s The French Connection that has always fascinated me. First is on a technical level: how Friedkin employed a neo-realist and documentary style approach in casting, performances, photography and editing to turn a pulpy, sensationalistic cop & crooks story into a high art police procedural; the second is on a thematic level: how a duel between a cop and criminal transcends the usual lawman against outlaw battle to take the form of a class struggle, or class war, where the rough, uncouth, arrogant, proletariat cop is on an obsessive quest to take down the refined, charming and entitled bourgeoisie criminal. Both these factors make this film the one and only Neo-realist action blockbuster ever made in Hollywood. The decaying, trash-filled 1970s New York city, which is one of the main characters in the film, forms as perfect a backdrop as the bombed out post-WWII Rome or Berlin in this depiction of the story. Friedkin uses a frenetic, handheld camera style to shoot most of the scenes giving it an immediacy and intimacy as a CNN news report. Most of the time, it appears that cameramen just about managed to reach the spot and capture the action as it is taking place. The editing too does not follow classical editing rules, and break rules of visual continuity- going for a more visceral effect- reminding one of the new wave films of Godard like “Breathless”. This is also evident in the sound design, where a lot of conversations are not audible, and gets drowned in the noise of the city. Friedkin maintains this cold, detached, frenetic tone throughout, never venturing deeply into the protagonists’ personal lives. In its ode to masculine ‘professionalism’ it’s very much like an avant-garde Howard Hawks film. But unlike the old classical films, this film is brutally unsentimental and non-melodramatic at every stage. The casting of non-professional actors – like the real cops who’s story is being told, Eagan and Grosso. as well as the fact that a lot of the people we see in the background are actually real people and not extras drafted from the casting agency provides the film with that neo-realist verisimilitude.

At every stage in the film, the class difference between the cop and the criminal is highlighted and visually commented upon. The cop lives in a one-room, ramshackle apartment, surviving mainly on cheap junk food, liquor and easy sex with women whom he randomly picks up; Popeye also has his perversions: having a thing for girls wearing big boots and indulging in sadomasochistic sexual activity with them. On the other hand, the criminal has a chic young wife, an island of his own and eats and travels high class, in the best airlines and in best hotels. This is specifically highlighted in the scenes where Popeye is tailing Charnier (nicknamed frog one): we see Popeye freezing his ass off standing in the street, and wolfing down pizzas and coffee in paper cups with his hands shivering in the cold, while across the street, Charnier is having a full course meal in a luxurious, well-heated restaurant. Popeye is a brutal man, who extracts what he wants by beating up and intimidating people; the same dregs of the society with whom he mixes on a regular basis. Charnier gets what he wants by gentle persuasion, by throwing money around, through his well laid connections and friendships; he has other people to take care of the dirty business for him; he always exist on a higher plain than those whom he is tormenting, leaching from and even running from. All these themes come together brilliantly in the magnificent car chase sequence; on one hand, it’s a terrific cinematic set piece, but what elevates it above all other filmed car chases is that it also reveals Popeye’s character as well the subtext of the film. Nicoli attempts to kill Popeye at a time when Popeye has been asked by his superior to cool off and take a break. Important thing about Popeye is that if he’s not a cop, then he’s practically good for nothing else, and perhaps, he’s even bad for the society- which he protects with such vigor when he’s a cop. It’s at this low point in his life that Nicoli takes the shot and misses, and this puts the devil in Popeye; he roar backs into action; and just as Nicoli hijacks a train, Popeye hijacks a car; and starts chasing him with such ferocious obsession that one feels that the people around has more to fear from Popeye than Nicoli. Till now, Popeye has been doing the hunting, now the tables are turned, he’s the hunted one, but the tables are quickly turned again, as Popeye regains control of the situation and becomes the hunter again. In the end, he cold-bloodedly shoots the killer in the back. All this to show that there’s very little difference between the cop and the criminal, and we are all lucky that Popeye is a cop rather than criminal. This moral ambiguity s again a Friedkin trademark; there are no clear cut heroes or villains in his films. The chase sequence also subtly hints at the class difference element i mentioned earlier. The criminal commandeering the elevator train being chased by the cop driving through the road is a metaphor for the cop-criminal dynamic: the criminal always remains on top, where he has a smooth passage, and has the advantage of being on a higher plain than the cop, who has to struggle through the ground; through heavy obstacles to get to the criminal.

The Popeye-Charnier battle also acquires the dimension of a turf-war, where the alien French criminal encroaches upon the Irish-American cop’s territory and challenges him to stop him from unloading his junk, even as the cop aggressively fights to keep his territory clean. This is most evident in the superb foot chase sequence, in which Charnier, who’s alien to New York city, drags Popeye, who knows the city like the back of his hand, into a game of ‘hide & seek’ through the city streets. He gives Popeye the ‘merry go around’, and finally, manages to trick him at the subway station, leaving him stranded, as Charnier mockingly waves him good bye as he rides away on the train. It’s also a moment where we find out that there’s a devilishly malevolent core to his smooth, suave personality. Popeye returns the wave when he manages to trap Charnier at the end. The final scenes show Popeye having completely lost it; his obsession has taken him beyond the boundaries of law and even humanity, as he chases Charnier into an unknown, dark corner of the world, of which he has no idea: a perfect metaphor for what happens in these cases where the ordinary, driven cop goes hunting a well connected, influential criminal, only to end up in a no man’s land. The greatness of Friedkin’s filmmaking is that he brings out all these aspects hidden inside this very formulaic story, subtly and visually, just like Coppola extracted extra dimensions out of a very generic gangster story in The Godfather(1972). All these themes would keep resonating in Friedkin’s subsequent films: man Vs devil in The Exorcist; 4 society outcasts going against an unforgiving nature in the service of a ruthless corporation in Sorcerer, and so on. Friedkin is helped immensely by people in front and behind the camera; Owen Roizman’s moody, grainy photography, Gerald B. Greenberg’s kinetic editing, Don Ellis’ fantastic experimental score, and the terrific performances of the actors. It’s hard to believe that Gene Hackman was the forth or fifth choice for the role, and that he himself felt that he couldn’t do it; because it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in this role. He’s so dynamic, so realistic; his energy literally drives the film; that car chase sequence wouldn’t be half effective without his performance behind the wheel and outside the car: he runs, jumps and literally throws himself into the action, as he runs up to the stations, then jumps down back into the car and gets back in the chase. The same with the foot chases as well. What’s truly brilliant about his performance is that the character of Popeye doesn’t have an arc, or much depth, it’s a fully formed character when we meet him, and it doesn’t progress much during the film, but Hackman manages to fill it with life (and a sense of a a certain life lived) and make us connect with him and root for him, even when he’s doing the most despicable things. Roy Scheider, one of my favorite actors from the period, is as cool, natural and solid as ever, lending great support to Hackman; and Fernando Rey is perfect as the aristocratic French gentleman, who does some dope-dealing on the side.

Hackman and Rey would return for the sequel, The French Connection II (1975), which is a very different film from this, but still a great film in its own right. Hackman and Rey are great in that too, perhaps even better than they’re here, because they have much more fleshed out characters to play. Friedkin did not return for the sequel, and it was John Frankenheimer who directed it. Friedkin would go on to even bigger success with his next, The Exorcist, but his career would be ruined by the failure of the big-budget, 1977 “The Wages of Fear” remake, Sorcerer. His career would never again attain the heights of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Friedkin would get back to this form of hardcore, cops & criminals, car-chase fuelled, morally ambiguous, detective thriller with the brilliant To Live and Die in L.A.(1985); a film that flopped at the box office, but has since attained cult status.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s