#244) The French Connection (1971)

french_connection

#244) The French Connection (1971)

OR “Take the ‘H’ Train”

Directed by William Friedkin

Written by Ernest Tidyman. Based on the book by Robin Moore.

Class of 2005

The Plot: Based on a true crime, “The French Connection” follows New York detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) as they try to bust a drug trafficking scheme. The two are convinced that French smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is bringing heroin into New York using TV personality Henri Deveraux (Frederic de Pasquale) as a front. There’s no definitive evidence of Charnier’s involvement, but Doyle’s blind obsession keeps him going. Using his highly questionable methods, Doyle will do what it takes to catch the smugglers, even if it means recklessly driving a commandeered Pontiac LeMans to follow a hijacked elevated train. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Why It Matters: The NFR points out the film’s departure from other detective movies of the era, praises cinematographer Owen Roizman, and calls the chase scene “one of the most viscerally exciting screen moments”.

But Does It Really?: Having never seen “The French Connection” before (I know, I know), this movie had quite the reputation to live up to, and I’m happy to say that, for me, it did. “The French Connection” is the high-energy antihero action movie that came to define the early ‘70s. Friedkin keeps everything moving at an almost frenetic pace, culminating in a chase scene that I’ll gush about later. Throw in a fully committed Gene Hackman in the lead role, and Owen Roizman’s trademark gritty cinematography, and you’ve got yourself a classic.

Everybody Gets One: William Friedkin knew there was only one man who could play Alain Charnier: Francisco Rabal. Friedkin loved his performance in “Belle de Jour”, but couldn’t remember his name. The casting director contacted his co-star Fernando Rey by mistake instead, and Rey was kept on the film when it was discovered that Rabal did not speak English or French.

Wow, That’s Dated: Doyle, can you lay off the racial slurs for just one scene? On a lighter note, the film features a performance by female vocal group The Three Degrees singing the very ‘60s song “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon”. Of the three members featured in the film, Valerie Holiday is the only one still with the group!

Seriously, Oscars?: In a year with no clear front-runner, “The French Connection” tied with “The Last Picture Show” and “Fiddler on the Roof” for most Oscar nominations (eight). “French” prevailed with five awards: Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Editing. Roy Scheider lost Best Supporting Actor to veteran Ben Johnson for “Last Picture Show”, and the film lost Cinematography and Sound to “Fiddler”. If only Popeye did more singing.

Other notes

  • Gah! These credits are assaulting me!
  • Just a reminder that executive producer G. David Schine was mixed up in the McCarthy hearings of the ‘50s. Schine somehow got his hands on the film rights to the book and wouldn’t release them to 20th Century Fox without payment and a screen credit.
  • Fun Fact: Screenwriter Ernest Tidyman wrote the novel and screenplay for another 1971 detective movie: “Shaft”.
  • Gene Hackman IS Santa Claus. Before “Die Hard”, this was the not-Christmas action movie of choice.
  • Everyone’s favorite bit of what-if casting: Jackie Gleason was seriously considered for Popeye. It would have been a completely different movie. For one thing, I can’t imagine Gleason doing any of the running scenes. Among the other potentials, Peter Boyle would have been very good in the role as well.
  • Hackman’s trying really hard to make “You ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” the next “Do you feel lucky, punk?”. It’s not, please stop.
  • Can Roy Scheider do expository dialogue for every movie?
  • The real life Popeye and Cloudy appear in the film; Eddie Egan is Supervisor Simonson (he even gets a “You’re off special assignment!” scene), while Sonny Grosso is Agent Klein.
  • I appreciate this film’s restraint on dialogue. There are several stretches of the film where no one talks, but there’s no lack of action or character development.
  • I guarantee you that filming this movie pissed off local New Yorkers. This is the town that gave us “I’m walkin’ here!”
  • Well, they don’t call it one of filmdom’s greatest chase scenes for nothing. The car vs. train chase is still a brilliant orchestration of action, cinematography, and editing. Kudos to everyone involved. The one downside is that there’s still a half hour of movie to go after this. Nothing can top that, and nothing does.
  • Huh, it turns out the poster is a massive spoiler.
  • Hackman absolutely nails the character’s complete obsession over the case. Thanks to Hackman, you can see Doyle hit the point of no return.
  • Real life NYPD mechanic Irving Abrahams plays NYPD mechanic Irv. Where’s his Oscar?
  • Henri is just now realizing that there was some risk involved in this scheme? Even for a TV personality he’s a bit dense.
  • By way of its “where are they now” epilogue text, “The French Connection” has the same ending as “Animal House”.

Legacy

  • “French Connection II” appears on most lists of sequels that aren’t terrible. Hackman and Rey reprised their roles, with Doyle travelling to Marseilles to get Charnier once and for all, but not without becoming a heroin addict himself. The capable and game John Frankenheimer took over directing duties.
  • William Friedkin followed-up “French Connection” with another NFR entry: “The Exorcist”.
  • Eddie Egan realized that many of Doyle’s unethical tactics could easily be traced back to him once the film came out and announced his retirement from the NYPD. He was dismissed from the force prior to his retirement date with no pension, though that was eventually reversed.
  • “French Connection” producer Philip D’Antoni made another movie about unorthodox New York cops: 1973’s “The Seven-Ups”. While not a sequel to “French”, it did star Roy Scheider and Tony Lo Bianco in very similar roles.
  • Before he was Al Bundy, Ed O’Neill was “Popeye Doyle”, at least for a TV movie pilot in 1986 that never went to series.
  • Another attempt to make the French Connection story a TV series resulted in the 2005 pilot “N.Y.-70” with Donnie Wahlberg, Bobby Cannavale, and the stunt casting of Tony Lo Bianco.
  • Either the clothing outlet French Connection is named for the movie or for the original drug trafficking scheme. Either way, weird choice.
  • I’ll tell you what is actually named for this movie: Popeyes Louisiana Chicken. Louisiana Fast!

3 thoughts on “#244) The French Connection (1971)”

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