William Friedkin’s gritty masterpiece defined cop movies for a more cynical era.
The obsessive, street-hardened detectives on a collision course with a charming, elegant villain. The friction between local police and their arrogant, meddling federal colleagues. The urban decay that whittles morality down to killer instinct. 1971′s The French Connection might not have invented all the tropes that have since become the vocabulary of police procedural movies and television, but it brought them all together and made telling a cop story any other way seem like bullshit. The film was a game changer, much like Citizen Kane was for the biography and Blade Runner was for science fiction. And like those other classics it’s sometimes tricky to watch the film now without letting its legions of derivatives distract from its gripping audacity.
Based on real-life events and constructed with meticulous attention to realistic detail by director William Friedkin (The Exorcist), The French Connection was adapted in part from Robin Moore’s book of the same name but drew additional technical advice from the main characters’ real-life counterparts, who also played supporting roles in the film. The story’s premise is brutally simple: two NYPD narcotics detectives, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, stumble upon word of a major drug influx while staking out a low-level wiseguy (Tony Lo Bianco). Sensing something big, the detectives resolve to stop the importation no matter how much extra work that entails.
The two are nobody’s idea of white knights: Doyle especially drinks too much, bullies women and minorities, and smacks around suspects and informants with an almost palpable glee. Russo, quieter and more methodical, abets Doyle’s rampages through intelligence gathering and measured consideration. They want wire taps to pursue the investigation, but the mistakes of Doyle’s past make the necessary clearance harder to obtain from their captain (Eddie Egan, the real-life Doyle). Russo gets the court orders but also the hostile assistance of two federal agents (legendary stuntman Bill Hickman and Sonny Grosso, the real-life Russo) who want the case for themselves.
Meanwhile the drugs, about $35 million worth of grade-A heroin, arrive in the city hidden within the car of a French television personality, placed there by Marseilles shipping magnate Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) and his enforcer Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi). Upon their arrival in New York, Charnier and Nicoli find themselves under surveillance by Doyle, Russo, and the federal agents. But Doyle especially finds himself outmatched in short order by the suave Charnier, who smugly dismisses Doyle’s tail by outwitting him on a subway platform.
The film is distinguished throughout by its lack of explanation. There are no moments of clarification in the Captain’s office, no recanting of the details so that the audience can vicariously refresh their awareness of plot points. Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman build an undertow into the film’s momentum, so that the viewer is pulled into and then along for the events as they happen in furious succession. Frankly, that speed does the movie a service, because careful or dogged examination will reveal any number of plot holes and gaps in logic that will likely annoy the very left-brained among its audience. But the filmmakers meant to engage the senses, not the mind, and in that sense the fluid plot works like a Swiss watch.
The centerpiece of the film, of course, comes in the legendary car-vs.-subway chase, in which Doyle madly attempts to overtake Nicoli’s hijacked train car on its overhead track. It’s here that the detective’s relentless drive gets stripped bare of job or duty and the obsessiveness beneath its surface grows exposed. What’s amazing, and what future derivatives would cheat, is the realism of the chase. The traffic lights don’t turn themselves off, and the streets don’t empty of pedestrians. The entire sequence took weeks to shoot over several locations, and included all manner of clever lens techniques and editing sleight of hand.
Make no mistake: Friedkin, Hickman and their crew accomplished all that without a single pixel of CGI.
The film’s third act relates the taking apart and reconstruction of the drug-laden car and the eventual bust of the New York criminals as the sale is concluded. Doyle, Russo, and the federal agents corral the criminals inside a trash-collecting facility on a tiny island outside the city (New York in miniature, really), precipitating a bloody shootout that moves Doyle’s character completely over the edge of morality. The tortuously ambivalent ending denies the viewer any real satisfaction, followed by postscripts that play out almost tauntingly rote. The film doesn’t end so much as it ceases to share information with the viewer.
But like the tonally similar Bullitt three years previous (the films share a producer in Philip D’Antoni) that sense of lacking resolution captured the decade’s mood of weary cynicism. There are no easy answers and no one heads home satisfied or even vindicated, if they get to go home at all. Though Doyle and Charnier would have their reckoning in a largely forgotten sequel released four years later, the ambiguity of this film keeps its point separate and inviolate. In displaying Doyle and Russo’s brutality, The French Connection along with Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (released the same year) began to craft what would soon be known as the anti-hero, and their success opened a floodgate of tough-guy performances good and bad that have continued ever since. Though modern actors like Bruce Willis, Clive Owen and many others have made a career out of such parts, in 1971 they were a new film species as different from their more heroic predecessors as those characters were of the Keystone Kops a generation before them. They were heroes of their time, for better but especially for worse.
And while future marketing wizards would label their approach to the world as “in your face” attitude, nevertheless there’s something more slippery at play in Hackman and Sheider’s performances. It would seem somewhat stupid, in retrospect, if cinema came out of the 1960s with the same perspective it had before that decade’s upheaval. By building protagonists out of flawed men, Friedkin, Tidyman, Hackman and Sheider were moving closer to true realism by accepting the world everyone was handed and then willfully grounding their performances and their entire films inside it. “Realistic” has since become an empty phrase in describing fiction, but forty years ago it was a goal to chase.
In our next installment we’ll look at The French Connection‘s creative and spiritual true successor, a great movie that’s grown lost in its predecessor’s long, dark shadow.