The French Connection, which caps Film Forum’s “NYC Noir” series with a week-long run in a new 35mm print, is a multifaceted period piece—and not just because of its Rheingold beer and reel-to-reel technology.
A newfangled genre flick, fraught with urban decay and racial tension, William Friedkin’s bang-bang procedural created a paradigm for the tell-it-like-it-is cop drama; it was the third-highest-grossing film of 1971 and swept the Oscars, winning Best Picture (over A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, The Last Picture Show, and Nicholas and Alexandra) as well as awards for its 32-year-old director, on-screen anti-hero Gene Hackman, screenwriter Ernest Tidyman, and secret star, the editor Jerry Greenberg.
Friedkin once had documentary aspirations; that The French Connection
was shot almost entirely on the mean streets of Marseilles and New York, grounds the fantastic exploits of Hackman’s Popeye Doyle and his more low-key partner (Roy Scheider) in a gritty naturalism, if not a crumbling mess. Hackman is a prince of Fun City, crowned with an absurd porkpie hat and inhabiting his part so totally, it’s amazing that Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Breslin were among the half-dozen personalities first considered for the role. Being a cop is Popeye’s vocation; he establishes his street cred early on by single-handedly browbeating and brazenly N-wording the soul-brother patrons of a Bed-Stuy bar. These post–Great Society policemen have to go it alone, collaring perps by any means necessary. As the original ads put it: “Doyle is bad news— but a good cop.”
When it opened, The French Connection seemed like glorified Don Siegel—the justly celebrated elevated-subway chase through Bensonhurst is an adrenaline- pumped example of the action montage Siegel pioneered in The Line-Up (1958), while Popeye suggests the heroically disaffected cops who populate Siegel’s Madigan (1968) and Dirty Harry, which opened six weeks after The French Connection in December 1971. While Dirty Harry provided audiences an anti-establishment legal vigilante, The French Connection introduced the notion of the heroic working-class narc. Blue-collar to the bone, Popeye lives in public housing and feeds his face with a rancid-looking slice in the course of a freezing afternoon spent staking out the Upper East Side boîte where the French smuggler who is about to unload 100 pounds of uncut heroin (debonair Fernando Rey) leisurely consumes a multi-course feast. Popeye also earned counterculture points by mistakenly shooting a federal agent and exhibiting a conspicuous lack of remorse.
The French Connection was based on an actual case, and while it has the obligatory end-title follow-up, it was released too early for the ultimate punch line: The year after the movie opened, it was revealed that the huge cache of heroin seized as evidence had been stolen from the office of the New York City property clerk.