Cinematic history was made in 1971 with the release of a film that broke all of Hollywood’s rules and redefined the cop-thriller genre. Director William Fredkin’s (“The Exorcist,” “To Live and Die in L.A.”) “The French Connection,” starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey and Tony Lo Bianco, won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Hackman.
The film is based on Robin Moore’s 1969 novel, which chronicles a 1961 heroin bust. It is an intense, nail-biting thriller that takes the viewer into a world of stakeouts, electronic surveillance, heroin and car chases. Based on the real life crime fighting exploits of Eddie Egan (portrayed as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle) and Sonny Grosso (Buddy Russo in the film), this movie puts us smack (No pun intended) into their cat and mouse chase after a leader of a French drug ring wants to establish a heroin pipeline from France to New York City.
Location shooting plays a pivotal role in the film as we traverse the grimy streets of Marseille, the Marlboro projects in Brooklyn, New York City’s underbelly and the desolate Ward’s Island.
Shot in a street smart, documentary style by Owen Roizman, later a camera operator for “The Exorcist,” the viewer is taken on a riveting, suspense filled ride that does not let up. As Doyle and his partner Russo enter a drug-infested bar and shake down its patrons, you are right there with them sharing in the moment.
The fast moving hand held camera work lends itself to this feeling of being “on the job.” Have you ever been part of a stakeout? Fredkin’s expert direction makes you feel Doyle’s frostbite as he waits for the villain (Rey as “Frog One”) to finish his dinner at a swanky Manhattan restaurant.
The “French Connection” is the most realistic cop-thriller ever filmed and its cinema –verite’ style adds to the authenticity. After becoming immersed in the film, you forget that you are watching a movie and feel like you have just put in an “overnight” tour of duty for the N.Y.P.D.
If the aforementioned is not enough of an incentive to view the film, the acting performances on all accounts are superb. Hackman, whose first film role was in 1968’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” is “Popeye Doyle” with all his bluster, crudeness and cunning. The best actor Oscar he garnered for “Connection,” which he richly deserved, put him on the Hollywood map and led to a brilliant career in diverse roles (“Superman,” “No Way Out,” “Scarecrow” and “The Birdcage”). The late Scheider (“Jaws,” “Fosse and “Marathon Man”) as Buddy Russo is a perfect sidekick for Doyle, as his rational approach to police work tempers “Popeye’s” kinetic and unbridled energy.
Scheider’s performance so impressed Hollywood and the critics, that two years later he had the lead role in another police thriller, the “Seven Ups” with Tony Lo Bianco, a co-star in “The French Connection.”
Fernando Rey as Alan Charnier (“Frog One”) is a suave, debonair, evil smack peddler who is one-step ahead of his pursuers. A scene involving him and his “tail” (Doyle) on a subway platform is priceless. His stylish persona is a contradiction to his ultimate criminal goal. He is not a typical cartoonish villain that appears in many films today, but rather a worthy adversary of Doyle and Russo’s. Lo Bianco (“Marciano and “Nixon”) is perfectly cast as Sal Boca, based on real-life criminal figure Patsy Fuca. Sal is a low-level thug who masquerades as a hard working luncheonette owner with his disguised wife Angie. He is looking for a big score that will give him the life he thinks he deserves and Charnier is his ticket to happiness. Lo Bianco’s scenes are stirring and a virtual acting clinic.
Marcel Bozzufi as Pierre Nicoli has to be mentioned for his excellent portrayal of a cold- blooded hit man who is the muscle behind the brains of Charnier. He is a sociopath who likes killing and is good at it. Frederic Pasquale is also fantastic as a French actor who is getting in over his head due to his obligation to “Frog One.”
The car chase in the film has become legendary in action-movie history. Taking off from “Bullitt’s” (1968) car chase and pre-dating the “Seven-up’s,” the set-up for this monumental cinematic feat took five weeks of meticulous work on the part of the crew. It is a thrill a minute and makes you feel like you are behind the steering wheel.
Don Ellis’ intense score also adds to the drama. The line, “Ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie,” a catchphrase used by Doyle to confuse his suspect (Alan Weeks) and coerce a confession, will become a phrase you will never forget. Doyle is cop who will do anything to get his man.
Though the “French Connection” depicts real-life events, it is never a rote re-creation of the case’s particulars, but rather 104 minutes of movie magic. It changed the way movies depict cops chasing criminals. Other directors have tried to capture the essence of the “Connections” gritty realism in later films and Hollywood audiences are the better for it.
It is a film that borrows French New Wave techniques (“Breathless” as an example) with its quick cutting and “in your face” approach and combines it with the best Hollywood has to offer, giving us a classic urban-thriller that revolutionized film making and shook the foundation of the cop-movie genre.
“The French Connection” managed to triumph over the contenders for the 1971 Academy Awards among fellow nominees, “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Last Picture Show.” A major factor for that was the aforementioned style that William Friedkin created for the movie. It takes you on the icy cold streets of New York and feels real every step of the way.
Gene Hackman is also at his best in this picture, creating his trademark persona. Here, he dominates the screen without going too deep into the character’s psyche. We are not told much about these main characters, but are just along for a wild ride with them.
The New York cop (Eddie Egan) this film is based on, appears briefly as Simonson. He seems to relish in playing the type of character that he hated as cop.
A few other movies were made about his exploits as a cop including “Badge 373” with Robert Duvall, but none compare to “The French Connection.”
And, if you can, please avoid the needless sequel.