The French Connection

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The French Connection

The French Connection, the 1971 Best Picture Oscar winner, remains the best existential cop film ever made, contains arguably the best chase sequence ever committed to film, and turned Gene Hackmaninto a major star. The film is based on the real-life French connection heroin bust by NYPD narcotics division detectives Eddie "Popeye" Egan and Sonny "Cloudy" Grosso. That investigation lasted from the night of October 7, 1961 when off-duty detectives Egan and Grosso noticed Pasquale Fuca talking with some known drug dealers in the Copacabana nightclub to the day four months later when Fuca and five others were arrested for drug trafficking.

Producer Philip D'Antoni owned the rights to Robin Moore's book about the case, and when William Friedkin agreed to direct the film, a succession of writers was hired. Ernest Tidyman finally wrote a screenplay good enough to get the project green lighted by Twentieth Century-Fox. Friedkin, who began his career making documentaries on topics ranging from law enforcement to pro football for a Chicago television station and then ABC, brought a documentarian's sensibilities to the project. When he decided to direct the film, he strapped on a.38 pistol and spent nearly a year riding around with Egan and Grosso, visiting drug houses and shaking down bars. Once production began, Friedkin had immediate problems directing his actors. We first see Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) dressed as Santa Claus, and he and his partner, Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider), sprinting after and catching a fleeing suspect. Friedkin decided to stage the interrogation scene as it usually happens in real life, with the suspect sitting in the squad car and being grilled by the two detectives. Dissatisfied with the dialogue as written, Friedkin wrote some dialogue based on actual interrogations he had seen Egan and Grosso conduct, dialogue which he later referred to as Pinteresque. But thirty-two takes later, Friedkin still didn't have anything on film that satisfied him. According to Friedkin, he realized later that night what was wrong with the scene: "This is not Harold Pinter. This is a street show. I've got to let them improvise that scene." The scene was reshot in an open courtyard—one take, two cameras—and Friedkin used the best moments captured on film. Many other scenes were likewise improvised, with Hackman and Scheider taking their cues from Egan and Russo: Egan really did dress up as Santa and really did ask suspects if they "picked their feet in Poughkeepsie."

The film itself is brilliantly photographed and edited, making superb use of visual storytelling. Friedkin has pointed out that, of the film's twelve reels, six contain no dialogue at all, yet the silence isn't conspicuous because the acting is so good that viewers can almost hear what the characters are thinking. An excellent example of this is the cat-and-mouse game Popeye plays with Frog One (Fernando Rey) on the New York City subways, an incident that actually happened the way it was shown on film. Another example involves something D'Antoni and Friedkin had agreed to include in the film, even though it never happened in real life and wasn't in the book or screenplay: a car chase. The sequence starts when Frog Two (Marcel Bozzuffi) tries to shoot Popeye from a rooftop; Popeye runs after him, Frog Two hops on an elevated train, and Popeye commandeers a car to chase him. The ten-minute virtually wordless sequence has pedestrians and other cars in almost every shot, so Friedkin knew he couldn't undercrank the camera to simulate speed. The feeling of speed was ultimately obtained by having someone actually driving through New York streets at speeds approaching ninety miles per hour. What was to have been a near miss accidentally became the chase sequence's first collision. Most of this sequence, like 70 percent of the rest of the film, was shot with hand-held cameras, adding to the documentary feel.

Although Hackman wanted to humanize his character, Friedkin kept insisting, "No, this man is a pig. He's as rotten as the criminals he's chasing." This characterization also adds to the realism and is perhaps the most divisive aspect of the film. Popeye is portrayed as brutal, racist, foulmouthed, lecherous, and continuously violating suspects' rights—unlike the way cops are usually portrayed on film. Many saw the film as being right-wing because it humanized cops trampling on civil liberties, and many saw it as being left-wing because it showed cops as they really are, so Friedkin thought he'd achieved the correct balance. What he was striving for was a kind of hyperkinetic activity for its own sake, to little or no avail. Friedkin has said that the police really work hard, killing themselves and sometimes other people, "yet basically they're involved in a line of work that is frustrated, ineffectual." He believes narcotics is an impossible job, with too many ways to get drugs into the country and too many people wanting them. Friedkin and his actors capture this frustration while telling a gripping tale that proves a police procedure can be fast-paced and riveting if the storytelling and performances are so good that viewers really care what happens to the characters.

—Bob Sullivan

Further Reading:

Clagett, Thomas D. William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1990.

Moore, Robin. The French Connection. Boston, Little Brown, 1969.

Segaloff, Nat. Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin. New York, William Morrow, 1990.

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The French Connection

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