The 1971 classic “The French Connection” established Gene Hackman as a star, William Friedkin as a director, and the American crime drama as alive and well. Based on a true story, it has Hackman and a young Roy Scheider (Jaws) as a pair of New York City cops in a cat-and-mouse with a French drug smuggler trying to deliver 200 kilos of heroin to the streets of America. It also contains one of the greatest car chases in film history, with a stunt driver allegedly reaching speeds of 90 mph. The chase is much better than the original ground-breaker: Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968), which was shot on basically empty streets in San Francisco. It may seem tame by today’s standards, but the tension of the chase is still effective.
One of the greatest things about this film is the choice of Gene Hackman, which came about as the result of the budget of the film. The great Paul Newman was considered, but was clearly out of the film’s budget range. NYC columnist Jimmy Breslin was also considered, but refused to get behind the wheel of a car for the pivotal chase scene. Peter Boyle was originally cast, but his agent thought the film would be a failure and he turned it down. I sure hope he fired that guy. In the end, like most films, it’s hard now to imagine anyone else as Popeye Doyle. At 41, Hackman broke another barrier: he doesn’t have the leading-man looks of a Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, etc. He proves that you can carry a film without the central casting that executives tend to worship. He imbues the role with passionate aggression that hits hard and hits home. It’s simply one of the best performances as a cop consumed with stopping a criminal. The trademark sense of humor Hackman possesses comes through, but overall the film is serious and unique. Notably, the film uses the backdrop of NYC as part of the film, with Friedkin choosing background noise instead of soundtrack music.
William Friedkin went on to direct The Exorcist (1973), a film that would never have been made were it not for the success of this film. A $2 million budget that brings $50 million gives you a lot of latitude as a filmmaker. And this is the evidence of a great film. It has an impact that goes on and on after the film has left the theatres. The French Connection won 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, Screenplay and, of course, Actor (Hackman). Gene Hackman went on to have a storied career with at least a dozen memorable performances, 4 Oscar nominations and 2 wins. While William Friedkin may have never reached the heights of the this film or The Exorcist, he did revisit the cops-and-robbers theme with great effect in 1985’s To Live And Die In LA. He even expanded the car chase boundaries with that film, and it’s definitely worth the view.
Overall, another victory for the 1970’s filmmakers. Ground-breaking and historic, The French Connection is still relevant today. The heroin confiscated was stolen by corrupt NYC cops, and led to criminal indictments that were portrayed in the Sidney Lumet film Prince Of The City(1981). But it’s the journey of Popeye Doyle that is worth seeing. The film could be considered independent by Hollywood standards, and it just goes to show that sometimes less is more. As a filmmaker, you just might end up with a film you could be proud of, and it could possibly end up being on the American Film Institutes’ list of Top 100 films of all time.