“All right, Popeye’s here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!”
The gritty police movie is familiar now; but when The French Connection came out in 1971, this was a pretty novel concept. Directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, Rules of Engagement) and starring Roy Scheider and a young Gene Hackman, this is a police movie more real than even most today. It’s actually based on real-life events and characters. Scheider and Hackman went on patrol with the real-life policemen who inspired the movie, learning the ins and outs of the real work they did. The NYPD was also involved in the movie, making script edits and even working with the film crew to help capture a car chase without getting the proper permits from the city. This is not the typical Hollywood police good guys versus evil criminals, where good ultimately triumphs in the end. Truth be told, I was a little shocked with the ending, although it fit the movie perfectly. All in all, this is a well-written police thriller with plenty of realism and bite.
The plot follows two police officers, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy Russo, as they try to bust drug dealers and suppliers in New York City. As we quickly find out, the system is not perfect, and neither are these officers. They do their jobs the best they can, and sometimes you’re cheering for them and sometimes you’re not. The villains are more businessman than bad guy, and aren’t presented as evil characters. The plot has been criticized for being light, but the truth is that it’s just subtle: there’s a lot there, but if you’re watching passively or not paying attention, this movie will leave you behind.
All right! You put a shiv in my partner. You know what that means? Goddammit! All winter long I got to listen to him gripe about his bowling scores. Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.
The raw realism of the movie is apparent, even though the film has plenty of vintage cool in the wardrobe, language, and soundtrack. You’ll see police officers use some brilliant investigation techniques, then turn around and be really racist for a scene. You’ll see officers laugh over surveillance footage while eating cheeseburgers, rather than the overdramatic stakeouts in your typical Hollywood fare. This movie also has the most realistic car chase I think I’ve ever seen—due in part to the fact that some of the cars involved did not know there was a car chase going on, and at least one unassuming bystander’s car was wrecked in the filming. (The producer paid for the repairs.)
I’ll admit, it was the vintage charm that initially drew me into the movie; but midway through, I was effectively glued to the screen as tensions rose and I had no idea how everything was going to resolve. This is a thrilling movie, and it pulls it off without using cheap tricks or sloppy writing. Modern thrillers could learn a lot from The French Connection. The plot is unpredictable even while feeling very natural, and the real-life inspiration for the movie shines through beautifully.
The French Connection is a police thriller, and as such, may not appeal to everyone; but it’s smart, well-written, and surprising, which are traits not always found in other movies from this genre. This movie definitely raises the bar, and even now, almost 50 years later, few movies live up to the level of realism portrayed here. It’s a fun watch with plenty of depth, so most will probably find something to like here.
Winner: Best Picture (Philip D’Antoni), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Gene Hackman), Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Ernest Tidyman), Best Film Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg)
Nominations: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Roy Scheider), Best Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Best Sound (Theodore Soderberg, Christopher Newman)
Director: William Friedkin
Genres: crime, thriller