Rating: 3½ stars (out of 4)
The French Connection (1971): Dir. William Friedkin. Written by: Ernest Tidyman. Based upon the book of the same name by Robin Moore. Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco, and Marcel Bozzuffi. Rated R-for intense sequences of strong violence, language, drug content, and brief nudity. Running time: 104 minutes.
As two honest cops in early 60’s New York, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo patrol the streets busting drug rings, but the dream of “one big score” eludes them. That all changes when a French television personality attempts to smuggle an unprecedented amount of high-grade heroin into the country. As the detectives get closer and closer to busting the perpetrators, their quest for justice becomes a personal vendetta, and a fight for their lives.
The film portrays the dirty, wild, and unpredictable police tactics that define a more modern era. Gene Hackman as “Popeye” exemplifies the cowboy-as-policeman, irritating his steady and principled partner. While not corrupt, Popeye nonetheless results to extreme (and legally questionable) means in order to find the contraband, at one point hijacking an innocent civilian’s car in order to chase a criminal in an elevated train. Obsession and madness drive him, beleaguer him, but also sustain him.
What starts as a semi-documentary police procedural transforms into a profound character study of Melville-ian proportions. Acclaimed for its high-octane thrills (including a dynamite car chase), the film also gives us moments that showcase the seediness of the city, much as in Midnight Cowboy. A limited budget meant the filmmakers needed to rely heavily upon location shooting and limited sets. The focus on authenticity perhaps shakes the film’s focus, but Hackman is always there to anchor it.
Boasting rapid-fire editing and ushering in New Hollywood, The French Connection sets the bar high for police procedurals, even as it sacrifices realism for thrill-seeking. And it boasts a shocking endng that’s fitting as a final punch to the gut.
Next film: The Godfather, 1972