The French Connection Review


Possibly the defining film in the gritty urban cop genre, “The French Connection” astonishes with its amazing direction, writing, and performance from Gene Hackman. The film grips you from beginning to end with its realistic portrayal of 1970s New York and its wild man lead character, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. It represents one of the Academy’s finest hours, when it was awarded Best Picture, Director (William Friedkin) and Actor in 1971, but perhaps its greatest legacy is its influence, which can still be felt 40 years later in films like “American Gangster” and the Bourne trilogy.

Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) is a hard-drinking, reckless narcotics detective in New York. He relies on his gut, which makes his colleagues nervous (one of his hunches resulted in the death of a fellow cop), but his partner, Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider), always sticks by him despite some occasional reservations. The two gather some information linking a small-time crook they are following to a big shipment of heroin coming in from France. When the suave Alain Chartier (Fernando Rey) arrives to make some money off his drugs, Popeye and Cloudy tail him. Thus begins the thrilling cat-and-mouse game between the increasingly obsessed cop and his smart nemesis. And as the game intensifies, it starts to take even more of Popeye’s soul.

The duel of wits and guts between Popeye and Chartier (who Popeye refers to as Frog One) consumes the majority of the film’s running time. It’s tremendously compelling from scene to scene. From trying to outsmart each other in the subway station to the thrilling chase (the scene the film is most remembered for), their battle makes for some of the best cinema I’ve seen in a while.

I was also very impressed by the unglamorous look at 1970s New York. Many films highlight the city’s grandeur or its charm. This film highlights the ugliness of New York – the dirt, the broken down neighborhoods, the crime, the racism, and the isolation. This New York is a very fitting setting for our protagonist whose own life is a strange mixture of positive and negative virtues.

The acting is outstanding all around. Hackman’s Oscar was well-deserved. Despite his less-than-flattering characteristics, Popeye jumps off the screen and makes you root for him. At the very least, you’ll admire his determination, despite some of the things he is willing to do to see his goal through. Fernando Rey makes for a deliciously slick villain. Frog One is classy and knows the tricks to beating the cops. He certainly hasn’t encountered one like Popeye, and I couldn’t help but think he kind of admired him. The look on his face as his subway car speeds away from the cop gave me the impression they have a sort of Joker/Batman relationship.

“The French Connection” is also very admirable for its influence on later films. The film immediately reminded me of a tauter, exciting version of Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” a film I admire quite a bit. With its singularly determined cop, charismatic villain, and very gritty look, I have to think Scott took a look at William Friedkin’s film before making his. It’s also one of the earliest films I know of that utilizes a documentary-like, handheld camera for its action sequences (as well as many of the other scenes). Directors like Paul Greengrass (the Bourne trilogy), Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace), and Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) owe quite a bit to this masterpiece.

Oscar stepped out on a limb with this film. It doesn’t fit into any of the Academy’s sweet spots (war films, period pieces, character-driven dramas, etc.), but it was still awarded the Best Picture award. It reaffirms my belief in the Academy, the same group of people who awarded Kramer vs. Kramer and “Gandhi” with its top prize, but it also should be looked at as a testament to this great film. Pretty much every aspect of it works extremely well, making the final product one of the best films I’ve seen to emerge from what many consider the greatest decade in cinematic history.

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