Directed By: William Friedkin
Written By: Ernest Tidyman (based on the non-fiction book The French Connection: A Tue Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore)
Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey
What makes The French Connection tick is how real it is. William Friedkin’s crime thriller is deliberately methodical. The police work trials patience, it involves endless tailing and drone-like watching. You can feel the officers getting testy and frustrated, but the film itself is never slow. It moves like lightning. What it is, rather, is naturalistic.
Just how real it is is no more evident than in its celebrated car chase, perhaps the most famed in all of movies. “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) carves and crashes his way with horrifying abandon through the packed streets of New York. He’s chasing a train high above him, surely an impossible race, by Doyle is so nihilistically single-minded in his pursuit, so willing to destroy whatever’s obstructing him, that it’s hard to doubt him. For all the scene’s frantic editing and blaring sound-scape of screeching wheels and blasting horns, it works because you never lose the sense that these are real people. It’s so dangerous and involving because of how authentic it is.
Friedkin’s film is tightly strung. It’s like a jack in the box, surely being cranked, its eventual eruption is inevitable, it’s rather a matter of when. The plot concerns the investigation of a drug deal between a wealthy Frenchman (Fernando Rey), some smaller time American mobsters and an underworld big shot lawyer.
Aesthetically it evokes Costa-Gavras’ Z with its grainy textures. The gritty news reel photography firmly plants us in the chilly New York streets, whose grime you can sense seeping under your finger nails and whose rats you can feel gnawing at your skin.
The two leading cops on the case are Doyle and “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider), both fantastically played. Hackman perfectly channels the ferocity of Doyle, the prototypical loose-cannon cop, unhinged and amoral in his narrow-focussed race to break open the case. He works from intuition and can’t be deterred. What there is in the way of ethos rests on him and his stiff shoulders. Russo is a begrudging parental figure to Doyle. He backs his partner unconditionally, but with his cooler head he also has the unenviable task of tempering him.
Like so many crime thrillers, the morality of the film concerns the convergence of cops and criminals. It tip toes around that Nietzschian idea of becoming that which you confront. Popeye is no more concerned with justice than he is with the rulebook, instead it’s a matter of malignant sport. There’s a meanness that compels him, and he’s so destructive and closed off in his pursuit that it’s difficult to imagine the drugs peddled by his foes being any more harmful than Popeye himself.
Don Ellis’ score serves as a subtler condemnation of Popeye. The film’s final scene leaves no wonder as to where he lays on the moral spectrum. The shrill and spooky score follows Doyle as he clanks his way through the dank warehouse, his finger all too ready on the trigger.
Friedkin’s picture is a visceral dive first however, and a morality play second. As a gritty thriller it’s watershed; sharp and concise. The French Connection is unrelenting, laconic much like Costa-Gavras political thriller was and unnerving in its physicality and air of nihilism.
It’s fundamentally simple, but it’s so articulate with its mood and naturalism that its cold hands wrapping around your neck are impossible to shake. Incontrovertible till the end as they jerk you back and forth.