Cop movies were never the same after The French Connection, a scalding thriller about a New York detective obsessively tracking a Gallic drug smuggler. Once audiences watched morally challenged policeman Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) dress like a Salvation Army Santa Claus to snare a hoodlum, rattle suspects with twisted psychological tricks, and recklessly instigate the most frightening car chase 1971 audiences had ever seen, any subsequent policier with less verve seemed old-fashioned by comparison.
Based on a bestselling nonfiction book by Robin Moore and directed with docudrama realism by William Friedkin, the movie meticulously tracks how Doyle and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), latch onto a small-time hood, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), who unwittingly leads the cops to enigmatic European crook Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Among many other things, the film is a respectful but unflinching homage to dogged police work, because surveiling Sol way past the point when superiors see the value in doing so unlocks clues leading to a much more significant target. Ernest Tidyman’s muscular script juxtaposes vivid character-development scenes with explosive sequences of police action, creating just the right ambiguous context for signature moments including the harrowing vignette of Doyle shooting an escaping felon in the back. Throughout, the storyline uses Doyle as a means of exploring of whether Machiavellian law enforcement degrades or protects society.
Yet beyond its probing questions about right and wrong, The French Connection is breathlessly exciting, particularly during that infamous car chase, which has Doyle pursuing an elevated train carrying a suspect; Doyle’s near-misses with pedestrians are so terrifying that they reinforce the movie’s theme of a cop who’s arguably as dangerous as any crook. Lo Bianco, Rey, and Scheider provide sterling support, with Scheider demonstrating the streetwise suaveness that made him a leading man a few years later. As for Hackman, he’s on fire, alternately ferocious, funny, perverse, and wild, turning scenes like the “pick your toes in Poughkeepsie” interrogation into unforgettable moments. His performance is a master class in channeling the unique energy of the male animal into an expression of complicated sociopolitical concepts. Friedkin, Hackman, and Tidyman all won Oscars for their work, and they each spent much of their subsequent careers trying to recapture the bristling intensity of this film.
For instance, Hackman continued charting Doyle dark odyssey in French Connection II, for which hard-hitting journeyman John Frankenheimer replaced brash provocateur Friedkin. A respectable thriller in its own right, French Connection II sends Doyle to Marseilles, where he tries to capture the evasive Charnier on the Frenchman’s home turf. In the sequel’s brilliant contrivance, Doyle gets abducted and by Charneri’s thugs, who force heroin into the cop’s system until he becomes a desperate junkie. This eventually leads to an extraordinary sequence of Doyle going through violent DT’s. Another strong moment is the grim finale, which pays off the French Connection journey on an appropriate note of moral ambiguity.
Overall, however, the storyline of French Connection II isn’t nearly as focused or potent as that of its predecessor. The rivalry between Doyle and his Gallic counterpart (Bernard Fresson) plays well without lodging too firmly in the viewer’s imagination, and too many scenes feature Doyle killing time. As wonderful as it is to luxuriate in character development, leisurely pacing does not an exciting crime thriller make. That said, Frankenheimer plays rough whenever the action starts, and Hackman’s portrayal of Doyle is just as powerful the second time around. So while French Connection II ultimately feels unnecessary, it’s sufficiently well-crafted that both of these movies deserve spaces on the top shelf of ’70s crime cinema. FYI, the real-life cops who inspired The French Connection also inspired two other thrillers, both released in 1973: Badge 373 and The Seven-Ups.
The French Connection: OUTTA SIGHT
French Connection II: GROOVY