The great American director Frank Capra once said, “ There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. The cardinal sin is dullness.” Being dull is the last word anyone would use in describing one of the seminal films of the New Hollywood Era of the early 1970s, The French Connection. The film, based on an actual case that took place in the 1960s, follows the efforts of two New York city narcotics detectives to bust a heroin smuggling ring that had its reach from Indochina to Europe and terminating in North America. The two detectives, Eddie Egan (portrayed by Gene Hackman) and Sonny Grosso ( portrayed by Roy Schieder), were featured in a nonfiction book that was written by Robin Moore, author of the Green Berets. The film rights to the book were controlled by Philip D’Antoni, the producer of the classic cop film Bullitt. Aside from the great performances by the lead actors and the cold, blustering winter weather that set the mood of the film, the reason why this film has endured for more than 50 years is that its director, William Friedkin, had the three ingredients that made this film hit the audience with the intensity of a sledgehammer: ambition, drive, and luck. Bake those three ingredients together and you get the film that rode the waves of a zeitgeist for many years to come.
The impact The French Connection leaves on people is the result of the core of the film that Friedkin infused into it with his documentary background. At its heart, it is the thin line between good and evil. Everything you need to know about the characters is laid out in the first scenes of the film. We first meet Gene Hackman and Roy Schieder on an arctic day in New York City. Schieder’s character ( Buddy “Cloudy” Russo) is undercover, manning a hot dog stand outside a less than reputable bar. Nearby, in a poorly fitting Santa outfit, is Hackman’s character ( Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle) asking a group of young african american children what they want for Christmas. The names of the two detectives in the film were changed at the behest of 20th Century Fox lawyers who were reluctant to use the real names involved in the actual case for fear of lawsuit. 20th Century Fox had been the last studio in a long line that Friedkin and D’Antoni visited to get a greenlight on the film. The soon to be fired Richard Zanuck, president of 20th Century Fox, gave the pair the go ahead after realizing there might be something to the project that all the major studios rejected. With an initial budget of 1.5 million, they didn’t have the money for stars, just good actors who looked the part. Schieders portrayal of Cloudy was effective as Popeye’s ever loyal partner, even though Hackman’s character would push the boundaries of good and evil and Cloudy would sometimes have to restrain his partner’s volcanic temper. After Cloudy enters the bar and sees a drug exchange go down, he puts two of the men against a wall and then sees a third man, the pusher, run behind the bar and out the door. The pusher, played by Alan Weeks, engages Cloudy and Popeye, who joined in the chase after Weeks exited the bar, across low rent housing and into an open construction yard. After Popeye and Cloudy apprehend the pusher, the two engage in a back and forth with Weeks that rattles him. Week’s blood smeared face shows the brutality of Popeye, who has to be restrained by his partner. Cloudy at one point tells his partner “Don’t kill him”. In this scene we see that Popeye is obsessed with apprehending criminals and will stop at nothing, barring the intervention of his partner and his police superiors. The racist and sometimes terrorist-like behavior of this sworn defender of the law was a daily struggle for Hackman to portray. As a young man, he would constantly rebel against authority figures in the small town in Illinois he grew up in and hated his father who had abandoned the family. Due to the fact that Hackman was reluctant to portray the caustic character of Popeye as it was intended, Friedkin would have to take on the role of father figure toward Hackman on the set. Friedkin became the father Hackman hated and would elicit the anger that the role required. Now Gene Hackman is thought of as one of our greatest actors but he was Friedkin’s last choice. Friedkin had originally wanted the Honeymooners actor Jackie Gleason for the title role but was rejected by the studio due to Gleason’s involvement with Gigot, a recent movie that was a disaster at 20th Century Fox. The movie god was silently guiding the troubled production in a way Friedkin could not comprehend.
In a pivotal scene early on, we see Popeye and Cloudy go to a darkened night club that has a trio of African American singers that could win first prize in a Supremes look alike contest. The nightclub is in shadows, illuminated only by small red lights in the center of each cloth covered table. At one table sits Sal Boca. He has greased hair and wears a dark suit and tie. He sits at his table like a king, cigar in his mouth and his queen at his side sporting a golden honey bee hive hairdo. He throws money around the club like he owns the place. The other men sitting at the table are familiar criminals to the 2 detectives. As Popeye watches on, the sound of the singers and people in the club get drowned out as Popeye’s mind begins to turn. Popeye, ever on the lookout for fresh meat, spots Boca and convinces his partner that something is amiss and that they should follow him. After following Boca home in the early morning hours, the two cops realize that Boca and his wife are not high rollers but owners of a modest diner.
As they continue to watch over Boca and continue their surveillance, one of the largest drug machines in history starts to rev its engines. A French cop is killed outside his home by a balding, rough looking gunman who only stops to tear off a piece of bread that the dead man is clutching in his hands that has developed rigor mortis. The cop was performing surveillance on a former longshoreman with a grayish goatee and soft features. This character is revealed to be Alain Charnier, the fictional version of a man named Jean Jehan. Jehan was one of the conductors of the French Connection heroin ring and was a purported friend of Charles Degaulle, the president of France at the time of the case. Friedkin knew that casting Charnier would be one of the tentpoles of his film and asked his casting director, Robert Weiner, to find a particular actor. Weiner was a critic for the Village Voice and a neophyte casting director. He had a short-hand with Friedkin and was asked to help him cast the film. Friedkin, a fan of Luis Bunuel’s film Belle de Jour, asked Weiner to get the guy who played the heavy in the film. Not requiring an audition before he was hired, the actor was flown to New York to meet Friedkin. Upon meeting the actor in the airport, Friedkin was stunned. He was the wrong actor. As Friedkin was driving the actor to his hotel room, he asked him if he in fact was in Belle De Jour. Fernando Rey turned to Friedkin and informed him that he had been in many of Bunuel’s films but not Belle de Jour. The actor that Friedkin was looking for was Francisco Rabal, who was in fact Spanish, didn’t speak any English, and was unavailable. With his hands tied, Friedkin reluctantly accepted Rey as his Charnier, even though he refused to shave his goatee because it covered sores on his face. The character he was supposed to be portraying was that of a tough Corsican and a goatee was nothing close to the director’s vision. Rey also informed Friedkin that he didn’t know any French, he was of Spanish origin, and had to learn the french words for the film. If Friedkin did not start the film at the appointed time, it would never be made because Zanuck knew his head was on the chopping block and the new regime at 20th Century Fox would not approve of an ex-president’s project. Friedkin bit the bullet and started shooting with a specter of the movie god looming over the film.
For a successful film, a tone and style must be set up from the very first frames. Although Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane inspired the young filmmaker to work with celluloid, Friedkin used his experience making documentaries to inform the style of The French Connection. His first documentary, The People vs Paul Crump and numerous documentaries made for the Wolper company in Los Angeles taught him how to make a movie by rote for the neophyte filmmaker. Although he knew all the techniques of making a documentary, he didn’t think one could apply them to a scripted feature film. It was only after seeing the French film Z, directed by Costa-Gavras, that Friedkin had the courage to use documentary techniques in The French Connection. In the movie Z, the camera seemingly records events that look spontaneous and appear to unfold without any planning or orchestration. The camera wipes around and follows the characters where the action happens. This style of “induced documentary” allows the viewer of The French Connection to be immersed into the story and taken along for the ride. Friedkin would employ Ricky Bravo as the camera operator with first hand knowledge of these techniques. Ricky Bravo photographed the Cuban revolution at Castro’s side, from the Sierra Maestra mountains to the streets of Havana. After becoming disillusioned with the after effects of the revolution, Castro came to America and into Friedkin’s radar. As Friedkin would later recount, Bravo would seek perfection and sometimes cut a scene without Friedkin’s permission if something went wrong. Friedkin believed in spontaneity, not perfection. Bravo would work with the film’s director of photography, Owen Roizman, to achieve the film’s spontaneous feel.
In a scene at the police station, Cloudy and Popeye plead with their Narcotics boss Capt Simonson, played by the real french connection detective Eddie Egan, for wire tapes on Boca’s house and place of business. Popeye is reminded that he does not have a good track record within the department and that his history has multiple black marks on it. When Simonson turns to Cloudy for his opinion, we get a glimpse into his level of loyalty to Popeye. Cloudy looks him straight in the eyes and says “I go with my partner.” This display of loyalty is admirable considering Popeye’s history. An incident involving Popeye’s behavior that led to the death of a fellow officer hangs over his character like a black cloud. Although the detectives eventually get the wire tapes, they also inherit two FBI agents, one of them played by Sonny Grosso. The other agent is a man named Mulderig, played by stunt car driver Bill Hickman, who caustically jabs Popeye throughout the film and constantly reminds Popeye that he was responsible for the death of an officer.
Mention The French Connection to any casual moviegoer and a car chase will flash into their mind’s eye, even if they have never seen the entire film. The now iconic car chase that had a 1971 Pontiac LeMans traveling at upwards of 90 miles an hour through 26 blocks without permits of any kind and no warning to traffic except for a police gumball light that was affixed to the roof. As with the car chase, many scenes in the film were done without permission. Friedkin did whatever it took to get the job done, mirroring Popeye’s personal philosophy. The man behind the wheel was Hollywood stunt driver Bill Hickman. He can be seen as the bespectacled driver in the iconic car chase thru the hills of San Francisco in the Steve McQueen film Bullitt from 1968. Although the chase has now been dissected and talked about since the film came out, another pivotal scene has just as much excitement due to the suspense that Friedkin injects into it. As the case is heating up, Boca meets with nefarious businessman Joel Weinstock and after a sample of heroin is tested by a chemist and shown to be pure, Weinstock shows hesitation on his part. He tells Boca that due to the heat from the police, he wants to delay the exchange for a few days. Boca, sensing his once in a lifetime opportunity about to evaporate, pleads with Weinstock to make the exchange as soon as possible. Boca uses the fact that Charnier has a reputation that precedes him and that he isn’t to be trifled with. The following exchange underlines an important thread in the film.
Boca: Weinstock, I’m telling you, they’ll split if we don’t move! This guy’s got’em like that, he’s everything they say he is!
Weinstock: What about you,Sal? Are you everything they say you are?
In this simple exchange, the film opens a lid on how the characters appear on the surface to reveal who they are at their core. The Popeye character is seen in sharp contrast with Charnier. Charnier, a dignified looking gent who dotes on his young wife and appears to care deeply for her and his daughter from another relationship is admirable and the behavior you would expect from a saint, not a ruthless drug smuggler. Popeye is drawn with rough strokes, showing his nature as a womanizer and a “break-your-balls, shoot first, ask questions later” officer of the law. While Popeye is trailing Charnier, the Frenchman eats in an upscale French restaurant with his business associate and hired gun, Pierre Nicoli. Friedkin uses the disparity between the two men on opposite sides of the law for emphasis. Charnier eats escargot and delicious pastries off fine china while Popeye eats a slice of greasy pizza on a bitter cold street corner. While Popeye is trying to keep his toes from developing frostbite by shuffling his feet and drinking burnt coffee, a comfortable Charnier relaxes inside a warm booth while waiting for his espresso. Although it is not explicitly stated, this non-traditional reversal of fortunes informs the characters greatly and adds a rich layer to the film.
In a film that is largely remembered for its famous car chase, and rightly so, it is a scene that happens earlier that one could argue has more suspense and tension than the high speed pursuit on the streets of New York that would follow it. Charnier, astutely aware that he is being tailed by Popeye, keeps him waiting outside a florist shop while Charnier leaves from the back entrance. When Popeye realizes that he has been in the shop too long, he peers thru the front window to show a lonely shopkeeper and a missing Charnier. Frantically searching the crowds in the immediate vicinity, he eventually spots “Frog One”, the codename the police have bestowed on the frenchman. He follows Frog One to the subway where Charnier initially boards a subway train but retreats back to the platform when he senses Popeye has entered the train as well. Charnier begins to loiter around the platform, first walking by a payphone that Popeye is using to talk to agent Mulderig, and then getting a drink at a juice stand. An unspoken game of chicken emerges as Charnier and Popeye stand on opposite sides of the juice stand, each sizing the other up and seeing who will make the first move. Charnier downs his drink and readies his walking stick as he retraces his steps back to the subway doors and enters the train. Popeye, following with a candy apple in tow, shadows his path and gets on the train at what he thinks is a safe distance. As the two are playing cat and mouse, the audience is tense, trying to figure out who will flinch first. Seconds before the doors close Charnier steps out onto the platform. In a long shot, we see Charnier in the background and Popeye, himself exiting the train in the foreground, his back to Charnier. The New York cop is too slow to turn around to see the Frenchman behind the glass window of the train doors and slowly heading to the next station. The cherry on top of this checkmate is the wave he gives to Popeye and the train picks up speed. Popeye can do nothing but race along the train until it goes into the tunnel and Popeye hits a dead end.
Dead ends seemingly follow the police around throughout this film. A break comes when they impound a car that Boca dropped off near the Brooklyn bridge that is owned by the french movie star in the film, Henri Deveroux. Earlier in the film, the money-strapped Deveroux would be seen agreeing to take a car from France to New York as a favor to Charnier. The police eventually discover bags of heroin stashed away in the rockers of the car. When Deviroux comes to claim his stolen car from the police impound, we wonder if Deveroux will be busted for his role in smuggling the drugs in his car. The police let the little fish go to be able to catch the bigger fish that is Charnier. In the end, the trade of money for the drugs is made on Wards island, an isolated piece of land where Boca’s brother helped stash the drugs in a dilapidated warehouse. After the exchange is made, a smiling Boca and Charnier attempt to leave the island in his car but are stopped by an army of police officers and feds led by a pork pie hat wearing Popeye. As Charnier sees his face, Popeye flashes him a sarcastic wave of his own, reminiscent of the one Charnier flashed at him in the subway chase . Boca, reversing the car and taking it back to the warehouse causes everyone to run akimbo when they realize the fuzz have them surrounded.. Some flee while others stay and fight the army of police. In the bowels of the slime and water filled warehouse, Popeye obsessively searches for Charnier with his policeman special 38 caliber handgun drawn. Cloudy enters through a nearby doorway and is almost blown away by a trigger happy Popeye. Cloudy shadows Popeye as he continues his search. A shadowy figure steps in a doorway in the distance and the walls around the doorway are turned into swiss cheese, courtesy of Popeye’s 38 caliber. When Cloudy rushes over to identify the slain man, he realizes that it was FBI agent Muldrig that was shot, not Charnier. While Cloudy is in shock and confronts his partner with this catastrophic mistake, Popeye calmly reloads his handgun. He announces to his partner after his gun has been reloaded, “ the son of a bitch is here. I saw him and I’m gonna get him”. A catatonic Cloudy watches as Popeye runs off into the seemingly endless corridors of the building and eventually turns a corner and goes offscreen. A lone gunshot is heard, the audience never knowing what the outcome of the bullet was. The audience is left to wonder if this act of friendly fire was accidental or payback for Mudlerig’s constant abuse towards Popeye.
Years later, Friedkin would profess that he would be asked about that single gunshot ad nauseam. The ambiguity of it, obviously unsettling to most filmgoers, was merely an antidote for boredom per Friedkin. He said that during post production he was “falling asleep in the mix” and said to the sound man Ted Soderberg, “ let’s put a gunshot at the end…let’s end it with a bang”. The ambiguity of the concluding gunshot is a perfect way to end a film that asks more questions than it answers. In a similar way that Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the final frame of the film is a question mark. It puts the ball in the audience’s court and allows them to take from the movie what they brought to it.
The postscript of the film lays out the main characters and their fate. The one character that eluded capture was obviously Charnier. The obsession that consumed Hackman’s character led to his undoing. When one has laser focus it tends to put blinders up to the rest of the world. After watching The French Connection, one is left with the feeling that the line between black and white has been blurred to gray. Although the detective was a crusader for justice, he would gladly break the law to achieve the means to an end. Charnier, a fugitive from the law, conducted business with class and intelligence, as opposed to acting like a street hoodlum. The real Charnier, Jean Jehan, would live out his life in France, his whereabouts well known to the French authorities. A delegation of New York cops were sent to try to extradite him back to the United States to face trial but to no avail. The process of extradition became a maze that left them stonewalled. Unbeknownst to the cops when they arrived in France, Jean Jehan had been part of the french resistance and had fought, along with the future president of France, Charles Degalle, in the resistance against the nazis during WW2. This deep relationship allowed Jehan to die not in a US prison but peacefully in his sleep as an old man. If The French Connection leaves us with anything, it is that although the characters were guilty of many unforgivable sins, we can take comfort in the fact that the power and exhilaration of the film left us with many emotions, the last of which being dullness.