The mid-budget crime thriller barely exists anymore. Where once it was the tentpole of mainstream adult cinema, now it is relegated to the odd indie movie rarely seen outside of festivals, the occasional Steven Soderbergh picture or, most commonly, in the form of an 8-10 episode miniseries. Gone are the days when a film like William Friedkin’s The French Connection could sweep the Oscars and dominate the 1971 box office. But in the cinema of today that’s dominated by straight-laced supermen and wise-cracking “anti-heroes” perhaps we need the likes of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo more than we think.
Detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are on the trail of notorious French heroin smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) in New York City. Charnier plans to smuggle $32 million worth of heroin into New York in the car of the unsuspecting Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), a French TV personality and Charnier’s friend. As the case heats up, Popeye and Cloudy come under pressure from their superiors, the Feds and their own obsessive desire to catch the crooks.
There are certain films that are so dirty in presentation, aesthetic and theme that, after you watch them, you feel the need to step into a scalding hot shower and scrub. Taxi Driver is one, Gone Baby Gone and Naked are others. In ancient Roman baths slaves would use a scraping tool called a strigil to scrape the sweat, oil and dirt from their masters’ backs. That’s what I feel like I need after watching The French Connection so grimy is its setting, story and characters. New York in the 70s has been mythologised by filmmakers like Friedkin, Martin Scorsese and Walter Hill but there’s a grain of dirty truth to these stories of gangs, PTSD-afflicted ‘Nam vets and crooked cops.
Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s the city of New York was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, suffered a wave of sanitation worker strikes and the realities of its crumbling infrastructure were more apparent than ever. Steam gushes from every drain and vent set into the cracked concrete and filthy asphalt in The French Connection. The city is full of hustlers, pimps, bent cops and smugglers looking to pump this already rotting city’s veins full of smack. When all you’ve got standing in the way of this wave of crime are cops like Popeye and Cloudy there’s basically no hope.
Popeye and, to a lesser extent, Cloudy don’t really care about stopping crime. Cutting the problem out at the root means there’s no work. No work means there’s no chase. No chase means Popeye and Cloudy are out of a purpose in life. Near the start of the film the two partners are chasing a drug pusher – Hackman is dressed as Santa Claus for context – and Cloudy is slashed with a knife during the chase. They get their man who tells them something big is going down and a tired, bandaged Cloudy is brought out for a drink by Popeye. Of course it’s not just a drink. Low level criminal Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) is entertaining guests and flashing cash at the bar which lights a fire under Popeye who inevitably drags Cloudy along for the ride.
The French Connection is not a ridiculous story by any means as it is based on a real case but Friedkin films it with such immediacy and raw reality that it feels like you’re in the car or on the beat with these detestable yet compelling cops and drug runners. It’s clear just from Popeye’s dress sense that he cares for little else but the chase and whether it’s women or wanton criminals he’s chasing doesn’t really matter. Always dressed in a shabby brown suit and a porkpie hat we already know what Popeye’s like before he opens his mouth. The suit and hat say it all. The same can be said for Cloudy who has far better taste than his partner with his penchant for leather jackets and turtlenecks, he dresses like the movie Bullitt had a profound impact on him. But even Cloudy can’t compare to the film’s suave and sophisticated villains.
Perhaps the most amusing part of The French Connection is that Fernando Rey’s Charnier and his henchman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzufi) treat their drug running winter time trip to New York as a holiday. While Popeye and Cloudy freeze their toes off following them, Charnier and Nicoli enjoy leisurely strolls through boutiques, stay at luxury hotels and enjoy hours-long meals as only the French can. But all that changes once they realise they have a pitbull of a police detective on their heels.
It’s easy to call the car chase in The French Connection the best ever shot because it is but to hear tell of it being filmed is to sit in awed horror at William Friedkin’s madcap moviemaking style. What drove Friedkin to make The French Connection was a conversation with legendary director Howard Hawks whose daughter Friedkin was engaged to. When asked what he thought of Friedkin’s films thus far, Hawks replied: “Lousy”. Having come up in the world of live TV and documentary filmmaking and inspired by the French film Z, Friedkin chose to bring the aesthetics and in-your-face camerawork of these modes to The French Connection. It’s what makes the illegally shot car and subway train chase so exciting.
There is no camera car following that increasingly battered Pontiac LeMans down those 26 blocks. The cameras were strapped to the car as it slalomed beneath the overhead subway tracks. With neither the time nor the money for permits Friedkin chose to operate on a wing and a prayer as well as $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica for the subway official they bribed to let them film on the train. It’s safe to say that the chase sequence, which ends with our “hero” cop shooting a man in the back, went a long way to winning Friedkin the Oscar for Best Director, something Howard Hawks never achieved.
That chase scene defines the rest of the movie as we realise how much Popeye is willing to risk in pursuit of the criminals he’s after but it also defines William Friedkin’s career for the next decade and a half.. Whether it was firing guns on set or slapping a priest around on The Exorcist, catching malaria and hiring a professional arsonist to blow up a tree on Sorcerer or basically shooting endless reels of gay porn for Cruising Friedkin has always demanded that his films be grounded in the reality of their setting even if that setting involves a literal demon. This obsession with authenticity lends itself to the ending of The French Connection too.
Things don’t end well for anyone in The French Connection. Not the heroes or the villains or even those on the sidelines. Popeye’s big case ends with a single gunshot leaving him and Cloudy eating dust and the case in mostly ruins. In a way it reflects Friedkin’s own career in the 70s. Both The French Connection and The Exorcist conquered the box office and received multiple nominations and wins at the Oscars but this string of success was severed by Sorcerer in 1977.
After a belaboured shooting process in several jungles in Central and South America, Friedkin returned with his personal version of Apocalypse Now as well as a nasty dose of malaria. He considered this adaptation of The Wages of Fear to be his masterpiece but no one else saw it that way. Critics found it wanting and the fact that it opened a month after Star Wars made it box office anathema. Forty years later it would be recognised for the existential, iron-clad thriller that it was but before that The French Connection was the film that many defined William Friedkin’s long and varied career by.
It’s rare for a film’s influence to extend as much as half a century. In today’s world of streaming, superhero cinema and an endless glut of low budget horror it’s hard to imagine a film having that kind of influence ever again. But that’s the nature of history. Will we remember Roma and The Social Network for as long? Perhaps Bird Box or The Emoji Movie will stand the test of time better? It’s impossible to tell and while the mid-budget thriller may be dead for now, resurrection is always possible. The streaming wars cannot last forever. All empires eventually fall. Even stars will someday die. But for now The French Connection remains both timeless and timely.