Friday, September 22, 2023

Chasing After “The French Connection”

Some years ago, backstage at the West Hollywood Festival of Books, I chanced to chat with William Friedkin. It wasn’t much of a conversation: I was hardly a fan of The Exorcist, and didn’t have much in the way of insider questions to pose to the famous director. Nor did he seem to really welcome my interest in his career. Still, he was an Oscar winner, and a leading light among the New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s. So the news of his passing sent me to re-watch his most acclaimed thriller, 1971’s The French Connection.

 Despite its title, most of this down-and-dirty film is set in the mean streets of New York City. In early scenes I was pleased to see a few genuine glimpses of the Vieux-Port of Marseille, where some European baddies are planning a major drug deal, sending $32 million worth of heroin to the Big Apple in the trunk of a car being shipped across the Atlantic. By the time they and the dope arrive, two scruffy NYPD detectives (played by Roy Scheider and the Oscar-winning Gene Hackman) are on their trail, and most of the film becomes a cat and mouse game, with the cops pursuing the “frogs” through dingy alleyways and traffic-heavy streets. The mid-film chase involving a hijacked commuter train pursued by Hackman (as “Popeye” Doyle) in a commandeered sedan is what stood out in my mind from my long-ago first viewing of this film, and it’s just as exciting now, some fifty years after the initial release. (Wow! – the woman with the baby carriage really sets the heart athumping.) But there are lots of other great action sequences as well.  I’ve read that in directing this film, Friedkin took his inspiration from the French thriller Z, in which director Costa-Gavras filmed a fictional story about a political assassination in documentary fashion, thus heightening its drama. As Friedkin was to put it, “It was a fiction film but it was made like it was actually happening. Like the camera didn't know what was gonna happen next.” With Z as a  model, he shot The French Connection similarly, using a sense of rawness and uncertainty to pump up the adrenaline of audiences.

 I was surprised to learn that the budget was a modest $1.5 million, though the filmmakers went $300,000 over. But because of what was, even in the Seventies, modest budgeting, Friedkin couldn’t hire a glamorous star like Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. Tough guys Lee Marvin, Peter Boyle, James Caan, and Robert Mitchum turned down the Popeye role, which eventually went to Hackman. He had Hollywood cred, including a Supporting Oscar nomination for Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, but The French Connection is what truly put him on the map.

 Though Popeye and his partner are based on specific New York cops, I was surprised this time around to recognize that the film makes little effort to characterize them outside of their on-the-job behavior, Popeye’s pork-pie hat, and his leering way of challenging others: “Do you pick your feet?” Frankly, they seem to have no life beyond their profession. Their language is raw and their behavior is often beyond the pale. In fact we learn that a former partner of Popeye’s died when one of his hunches backfired. Even when Popeye and Cloudy ultimately triumph, there’s a painful irony: the final crawl makes clear that none of the drug-runners they’ve brought down ever really faces serious punishment, and the kingpin of the whole operation gets away scot-free. Just another day in the life of New York’s Finest.

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