Catching the Classics: The French Connection

french_connectionSince 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1300 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.

The French Connection first came to my attention when I was watching the AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Movies” program, which inspired my watch list; they had it ranked at #77. It was therefore one of the very first items to make it onto the list. It was also the Best Picture winner at the Oscars for 1971. As such, it seemed like a perfect choice for the inaugural entry in “Catching the Classics”.

In The French Connection, Gene Hackman stars as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a hard-nosed vice detective working in New York City. When he and his partner (Roy Scheider) decide to take up surveillance on a local lowlife on a whim, they discover that a record-breaking shipment of heroin is coming in from a French source. With the argumentative assistance of the feds, Doyle and Russo attempt to set up a sting operation to catch the French connection red-handed, and hopefully bring down not only the supplier but a local kingpin they’ve suspected for years.

The French Connection is not a film for the impatient. There isn’t a lot of action during the early stages when Doyle and company are still figuring things out; in fact, it takes a while for Doyle to even learn that there is something to figure out. The audience knows about it long before Doyle does. The film takes its time building things up to a climax. The most apt description is that it is a slow burn, though a less charitable reviewer might say it is merely slow. It is kept interesting in these stages largely by Hackman’s skillful portrayal of “Popeye” Doyle. Although he doesn’t get a great deal of character development, the audience is shown that while Doyle is a good cop, he is far from a paragon of virtue. He drinks, he smokes, he picks up random women for one-night stands. He plays fast and loose with the rules, he’s violent with suspects, and there’s a hint of racism in his mannerisms. In Doyle the audience is presented with a hero they want to cheer for because he’s doing good things, not because he’s a great person. And it’s unmistakeably Hackman’s show; while there are a number of other characters, when Doyle is on screen he has the spotlight, and Doyle is almost always on screen.

Once the events are truly in motion, however, The French Connection really shows its strengths. There’s an entertaining chase sequence on foot, car, and train, as well as a great shootout near the end. But it’s not just the action scenes that make it worth watching; it’s the moments in-between. Between Hackman’s hard-boiled detective and Fernando Rey’s sophisticated smuggler, there’s an intellectual conflict that develops into a game of criminal cat and mouse. Once each is aware of the other’s existence, they are constantly trying to keep one step ahead of each other, and the by-play is a lot of fun to watch. This is helped tremendously by director William Friedkin’s use of atmosphere in the film. New York City is shot primarily in late afternoon and evening lighting, giving it an air that isn’t just dark, but grimy. One can feel the criminal culture that Doyle is fighting against. Further, Friedkin opts to leave the musical score silent for much of the film, relying on ambient noise; thus, when Don Ellis’s music does start up, it adds even more to the suspense by virtue of being such a contrast from the norm.

While its slow start may make The French Connection a difficult film for some people to get into, it is ultimately a rewarding film to watch. A gritty, intelligent crime drama, it gives the audience plenty of reasons to keep watching all the way through.

Rating: 4 Stars

Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.

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45 thoughts on “Catching the Classics: The French Connection

  1. Good review Fogs. I personally think this is a masterpiece, the likes of which we may not see again, because its so smart, because its so honest, because it brings you into it so well.

    • Thanks, Elroy, although this one was me, not Fogs. Though I suppose that’s my fault for not including that in the boilerplate initially. :)

      I agree that it’s a rare film that’s as intelligent as The French Connection, especially in the crime genre, which (in my experience) will often take shortcuts by having one side or the other be markedly less intelligent than the opposition.

      • I can think of several ways it wouldn’t be good to be mistaken for me, but as a reviewer? LOL. It’s not so bad, I guess ;)

        Meanwhile, I think its a classic, too. We wont ever see the likes of it again, either, especially that car chase. They DAMN sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore!

  2. Nice review. I’ve never seen The French Connection, but I enjoy some Friedkin‚Äôs older work plus I enjoy crime movies. I’ll have to rent it on Netflix.

  3. I’m pretty sure I might have seen this on TV back in the day when movies were shown on network t.v. a few years after the theatrical release. I can picture Hackman in it as Doyle but I just can’t remember much of the film. I’ll have to rewatch and refresh my memory.

  4. Great pic. So strong is this film. I enjoy the imdb trivia associated with it too.

    Apparently Fernando Rey casting was a mistake initally as director William Friedkin was thinking of a different Belle de Jour actor Francisco Rabal who as it turned out did not speak English allowing Rey to stay hired and deliver a fine performance.

    Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman patrolled for a month with Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, the real life detectives who served as the basis for this movie. Hackman later thought he’d be sued for impersonating a cop.

    Separately, a fast food restaurant that sold chicken was named after Hackman’s Doyle character. That place grew into a chain that is now Popeye’s chicken.

    Nice selection Morgan; as Leop says, this is a solid film for any time. ;-)

    “All right, Popeye’s here! get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!”
    – Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Hackman), The French Connection(1971)

    • Wow, I didn’t know the Popeye’s chain was named after Doyle. I figured it was just coincidental (I knew it wasn’t after the cartoon, of course, since that Popeye never ate chicken, but then, I don’t recall Doyle doing so either…)

  5. Hackman the man, the myth, the legend. This is a great performance and a very nice write up. They shot most of the film guerilla style, including the famous car chase. The end of the film is haunting. What a great film to start off with.

  6. Not just a good film, an important one. It set the template for all crime action dramas to follow. Too, too many movies to mention it’s influence over but just read the storyline for this weekends “2 Guns” and tell me “French Connection” isn’t rooted there. Fogs wanted you to see this not because it’s a “good film” but film history!

  7. Hi, Morgan:

    ‘The French Connection’ rocks out loud, though in many quiet ways. To create some of Friedkin’s best work!

    A superb cast with Hackman and Scheider. Backed up by parts of the boroughs that never looked more dismal, cold and unforgiving. An excellent bad guy in Tony Lo Bianco’s Sal Boca. And just enough hints at a procedural to equal the task at hand.

    I still get a kick out of the scenes where Hackman and Scheider reveal the proper way to take down an after hours bar. And later when the “dirty” Lincoln is being dismantled.

    Nicely done!

    • I found Fernando Rey’s character to be a more compelling bad guy than Sal Boca… I mean, he was the mastermind, Boca was just a peon, you know? Still a great performance, though.

      I like the bar scene and the dismantling of the Lincoln as well. Two great scenes.

  8. Great way to kick things off, buddy. I love this flick, I’m glad to see you liked it too.

    It was the 70s, viewers were more patient then. Filmmakers were less worried about keeping ADD audiences constantly entertained. But the chase sequences that do break out? Holy COW 8O They really did that car chase live in NY, they didn’t close any streets or anything like that, they just let ‘er rip!! :D

    Anyways, nice start to the series, glad to see the frequenters responding well to it too!

    • Thanks, Fogs. We’ll see if they stick around. :P

      And yeah, there’s definitely a different feel to 1970s films, especially the crime films. Seen a few now, and there’s a consistent vibe to all of them.

  9. Ahh, movies from the 70s. When actors didn’t have to be Adonises, endings didn’t have to be happy, and you could smuggle your drugs in the side rails of pompous French actors cars shipped across a trans-Atlantic cruiser.

    Thanks for the spotlight.

    • Yeah, sadly it’s a little hard to picture Gene Hackman getting the lead role in a film like this nowadays if he didn’t already have the clout. Gotta look like Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg, no matter how few policemen actually do.

  10. You picked another excellent movie to rec. The special effects challenge the best to date for car chase sequences. Gene Hackman was not the handsome, well-built leading man; but a superb actor who made us care about the flawed cop through his intense portrayal.

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