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The French Connection

USA 1971
Directed by
William Friedkin
104 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The French Connection

Based on real events recorded in a book by Robin Moore and with a screenplay by Ernest Tidyman who wrote the novel and screenplay for Shaft which was released the same year The French Connection was a huge commercial hit in its day and won five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing  as well as Best Actor for Gene Hackman of whom it made a star.

Hackman plays “Popeye” Doyle (his real life equivalent, Edie Egan appears as Popeye’s boss, Simonson) and Roy Schieder “Cloudy” Russo (whose real life equivalent, Sonny Grosso, appears as Bill Klein), two off-duty NYPD Narcotics cops who stumble into what was to become New York’s biggest ever drug bust.

Although a benchmark for its time with Friedkin’s trademark realism taking audiences to the underbelly of New York in a way that Hollywood had not before today the film’s limitations, no doubt significantly affected by its low budget, are more apparent.

Whilst the car chase is impressive particularly as it was done “guerilla” style with only limited safety controls, the train crash is somewhat anti-climactic (today it would be done with CGI); there are jarring elisions in the narrative (for instance in one cut Hackman having shots hitman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) immediately appears in the backseat of a car pursuing Sal Bocca (Tony Lo Bianco); there is no explanation of how NYPD mechanics managed to completely rebuild a demolished car in a couple of hours: or, more importantly why, given that the drug smugglers knew that the cops were onto them they persisted with “the switch” (unlike a similar situation in Michael Mann’s crime masterpiece Heat,1995). 

This in turn reflects the very limited characterization of the two leads with Schieder’s Coudy being almost entirely overlooked in this respect and no motivation or explanation being given for Popeye’s out-of-control behaviour (including a significant final act of aggression which is simply ignored).  Oscar aside,Hackman is for my money a little too soft (apparently an accurate intuition, Friedkin having to goad him in order to get anywhere close to his real equivalent’s aggressive personality).

FYI: Hackman’s car was driven by Bill Hickman who also appears here as Det. Muldering. Hackman was the driver of the car that Steve McQueen was pursing in the famous car chase in Bullitt  (1968), the two films sharing the same producer, Philip D’Antoni, who consciously wanted to top the earlier effort. 

Fernando Rey was cast by mistake after Friedkin asked for “that guy in Belle De Jour, 1967 (referring to Francisco Rabal) and casting director, Rob Weiner, hired Rey who had been in Bunuel’s Tristana  the previous year.

There was a 1975 sequel starring Hackman but directed by John Frankenheimer which I have not seen. 




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