We are now officially one week away from Oscar Sunday (February 28th, mark your calendars!) and my recent tribute to various beloved Best Picture winners is slowly coming to an end. I decided to stay in the seventies again this week with the 1971 gritty police drama, The French Connection. The French Connection tells the story of two New York City police detectives—Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo—in their efforts to expose French drug pushers. The film was actually based on a true case in which the New York police uncover sixty kilos of heroin in the rockers of a Lincoln Continental that was imported from Marseilles. Popeye and Cloudy’s real-life counterparts, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, also star in the film as narcotics detectives, Walt Simonson and Klein.
In 1972, The French Connection won the Academy Award for Best Picture, beating A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, The Last Picture Show, and Nicholas and Alexandra. It was the first R-rated film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since the introduction of the MPAA film rating system (Midnight Cowboy won with an X rating).
- Best Picture: Philip D’Antoni
- Best Actor in a Leading Role: Gene Hackman
- Best Director: William Friedkin
- Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Ernest Tidyman
- Best Film Editing: Gerald B. Greenberg
Roy Scheider was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role but lost to Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show. The French Connection was also nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing but lost both to Fiddler on the Roof.
Gene Hackman plays Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a relentless and callous detective who will stop at nothing to get his man. Roy Scheider plays the role of his partner, Buddy “Cloudy” Russo. While Cloudy is fiercely devoted to his partner, he is not nearly as rigid or brutal. While getting drinks at a bar, Popeye observes Sal and Angie Boca (Tony Lo Bianco and Arlene Farber) in the company of mobsters involved in narcotics. After tailing them, they learn that the Bocas run a modest sandwich shop—despite driving expensive cars and favoring fancy nightclubs—leading Popeye and Cloudy to believe they are involved in criminal activity. At the same time in France, an undercover detective is shot and killed by hit man, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), for following a wealthy, French drug lord named Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Charnier plans to smuggle large amounts of heroin into the United States by hiding it in the car of the credulous French TV star, Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale).
Aside from winning best picture, The French Connection, is probably most known for containing one of the most legendary car chase scenes in cinematic history (Sorry Mad Max: Fury Road). The chase actually takes place between a car and a train, which in my opinion makes the scene all the more memorable. Popeye, in a brown Pontiac, is chasing Nicoli, who has abducted an elevated subway train. Another thing that separates this chase from others is that the subway train has nothing blocking its route, whereas Popeye is constantly avoiding traffic, pedestrians, and other various elements of the New York City streets. The recklessness of the chase has led many to label director, William Friedkin, as a ‘renegade filmmaker’ because of the way he went about shooting the scene. According to IMDB:
“The car chase was filmed without obtaining the proper permits from the city. Members of the NYPD’s tactical force helped control traffic. But most of the control was achieved by the assistant directors with the help of off-duty NYPD officers, many of whom had been involved in the actual case. The assistant directors, under the supervision of Terence A. Donnelly, cleared traffic for approximately five blocks in each direction. Permission was given to literally control the traffic signals on those streets where they ran the chase car. Even so, in many instances, they illegally continued the chase into sections with no traffic control, where they actually had to evade real traffic and pedestrians. Many of the (near) collisions in the movie were therefore real and not planned (with the exception of the near-miss of the lady with the baby carriage, which was carefully rehearsed). A flashing police light was placed on top of the car to warn bystanders. A camera was mounted on the car’s bumper for the shots from the car’s point-of-view. Hackman did some of the driving but the extremely dangerous stunts were performed by Bill Hickman, with Friedkin filming from the backseat. Friedkin operated the camera himself because the other camera operators were married with children and he was not.”
This movie was a first for me and I was somewhat hesitant about it, due to the gritty, cold aesthetic style of the film. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, especially because it is a film that it is made up of almost completely surface action. It does not have very deep or meaningful dialogue and the characters are not very three-dimensional, but the action successfully carries the story along. Whether you like the movie or not, I think we can all agree on the fact that in life you are only as cool as your nickname—Popeye, Cloudy; they even nicknamed Charnier, Frog #1!
I am currently taking suggestions for myself!
My rating: ★★★