I have to admit holding a grudge against this movie for most of my life. during my college years, I saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and since the it has remained one of my all-time favorite and respected films. But The French Connection won that year’s Best Picture Oscar, and any appreciation I might’ve had for it would inevitably be dulled by its stealing of cinema’s greatest prize from a flat-out masterpiece. So I eventually saw Connection, liked it, but just deemed it another crime-drama, albeit a well-directed, well-written one.
How wrong I was. The French Connection is not a crime-drama; it is the crime-drama. It changed all the rules, and invented even more. Yeah, I sound like a broken record, but I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this movie for the first time back in 1971, when you’d been raised on Dragnet and private-eye pablum and knew only about drug-trafficking from the 6:00 news. Connection was about as gritty and realistic as you could get back then, and if time has desensitized us all so it no longer shocks us, it’s done nothing to mitigate its efficacy.
Its influence is immeasurable. Before Connection, cops and crime in American movies played it safe, with prettified sets, bloodless violence literal and otherwise) and a depiction of the law about as strictly defined as you could get (Bullitt comes to mind as one of the few exceptions). After Connection, and its 61-million take at the BO, scores of films tried to match its success, ranging from B-movie quickies to modern-day classics like Death Wish, The Conversation and Serpico. And on TV, the effect was even larger: the gritty cop show became a TV staple, replacing the Western as the tube drama of choice, and lasting all the way up until the 80s when the nighttime soap assumed the throne.
But what so many imitators didn’t get was that Connection protagonist Popeye Doyle was the screen’s first antihero cop, at leas in the sense of traditional role-playing (Dirty Harry would come out later that year). More accurately, he was a regular Joe, a narcotics officer whose only function in life is to catch the bad guys. End of story. He’s not there to be liked or to work well with others, or to shoot his assailants neatly in the chest or give up a car chase when it gets too risky. No, he nabs drug dealers, shoots them in the back (real-life cops protrsted) and if he needs to be a loose cannon to do so (another first), so be it. And just like real cops, he quips and jokes in quirky phrases (“Do you pick your feet in Poughkipsee?”) in the process.
And Director William Friedkin belied so many filmic conventions in order to attain this heightened realism. He shot in actual New York locations, evidently on city streets as regular, non-actors walked by, given their occasional glances at the camera. With no steadicam yet, much of the mobile work is shaky and jolting, especially in POV chase shots. And he disrupted narrative conventions, too, placing his “climactic” train chase about a half hour from the end of the film, following it with a decidedly anticlimactic scene of an all-night car stakeout. But perhaps the biggest affront to the classic cop paradigm comes at the end, when Dolyle tracks the head bad guy into a crematorium, shoots and kills a fellow cop by mistake, and lets the culprit get away. Actually this last part we don’t see; it’s revealed to us, coldly, in an end-title epilogue, in which we also learn of Doyle and his partner’s transfer out of narcotics. Not exactly The Naked City.
Poor Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a NY narcotics cop with an, ahem, unorthodox approach to his job. Sure he gets the two-bit dealers here and there but it’s all milk – in other words, not worth his time of day. But when he and his partner, Cloudy get some info o a potential collar, ad then track that dude down to a nightclub along with his significant other, Popeye gets a hunch. They solicit their boss for a wire to learn more about Sal, a grocery store owner who, along with his girl, seem to be a lot wealthier than their livelihood could possibly provide. Eavesdropping on the man, they find out he’s connected with Weincock, infamous lawyer of the drug underworld, and now there’s definitely gotta be something big.
All the while, we’ve also been following events in France, so we already know what that something big is. Alain Charnier, mega druglord, has planned to smuggle 32 million dollars worth of heroin into the US through the star of French TV star Henri Devereaux. With protection by a skilled hitman named Nicoli, they figure they’ve got it made when the car clears and now they just have to hope the deal with Sal and Weincock goes down. It doesn’t, at least not yet: the latter, knowing they’re being tracked, cautiously wants to wait until things cool off. Nicoli attempts to kill Doyle, but after an intense chase through Brooklyn gets plugged himself. And then finally – the car! Doyle and Cloudy spot it, impound it, and take it apart, ultimately finding heroin in the rocker panels before allowing Charnier to take it back. Of course, it’s a setup for a bust so the can get everyone. And they do, almost: Sal goes down, but Charnier gets away (Doyle mistakenly kills a fellow fed, the wirer, who never liked Doyle because he’d always blamed him for his partner’s death). End cards reveal Weinstock got off on a technicality, and that Popeye and Cloudy got transferred to another division.
As I’ve said before on his blog, this era in America movies is my era. The “New Hollywood” movement, which ran from about 1965 to 1977 or ’78 or so, is a golden age for me: an era in American movies of new freedoms, bold ideas and immense talents, and before special/digital effects, political correctness and the Blockbuster Mentality took over, crushing this new spirit. I dread to think of how this film would be made today – its treatment of minorities (black, Jewish, Hispanics) would certainly be cleaned up, and its action scenes would be glossier more spectacular, although certainly no more gripping.
[Case in point – there’s a scene during the car deconstruction when the exasperated mechanic tells Doyle, “I’ve taken apart everything except the rocker panels!” A lesser (more recent) film would either do a slow closeup of a silent, knowing Doyle, maybe with a swelling score – and then cut to the heroin. But Friedkin wisely keeps it real, with Doyle angrily saying, “Dammit, what are they?” angry he hadn’t been told earlier. Sharp, real writing, and true to character.]
Connection epitomizes the New Hollywood spirit; in addition to the aforementioned realism it creates solid, indelible characters full of depth and breadth. And their dialogue is so sharp and natural it makes you smile just listening to it. (In ways it reminded me of how Tarantno put a new spin on the language of crime figures, 20 years later.)
But in 1971, crime flicks would never be the same again. And thank God for that.
P.S.: Oh, and that famous car chase? Brilliant. Anyone who’s driven under those tracks in Brooklyn, barely missing those middle-of-the-road posts at regular speed, knows what I’m talking about.