What’s it mean to be a cop in William Friedkin’s classic, The French Connection? You stand outside drinking tasteless coffee—watching the bad guys wine and dine in some upscale bistro—with the cold harassing you like a drunk at a hockey game. The squalor you live in would make meth addicts from Appalachia proud, an apartment filled with half empty bottles of booze and the underwear from whatever skeezer you picked up on the way home from the bar. You watch your suspect prancing around like Louis XIV in a Five Star hotel while you listen to some uppity Fed hammer you about your past fuck-ups, fighting the urge to knock his government issued teeth down his bureaucratic throat. A shrill bad guy berates your fellow officer at a tow yard, holding a European cigarette in an effeminate hand. You come down hard on the motor pool mechanic for not pulling out the rocker panels of a car you think is filled with millions of dollars worth of heroin.
“Come on, Irv!!! What the hell is that??!!”
Roughing up druggie skells for information on the next shipment—accusing them of picking their feet in Poughkeepsie for leverage—is on the daily to do list. Your supervisor begrudgingly admits you and your partner are good cops who make tons of arrests. However, the fact that they are all small time busts makes him warm up to you guys like the steel barrel of a revolver. The salty old goat angrily laments one arrest was a bellhop who had three “jernts” stuffed in his sock. This makes you and your supervisor mix together about as well as water and “earl”. A bad relationship with the boss could flush one’s career down the “terlet”. They don’t enunciate like that in the yoga studios, or the expensive boutiques in Kings County nowadays. Further proof New York City is going to be devoured by the well educated wolves, leaving us a bland shopping mall in place of glorious dirty histories.
Gene Hackman—in an Oscar winning performance—plays hardass cop, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. He is a force of nature in this, a mad bull rousting disreputable places and breaking faces to make a drug bust. Verbally and physically abusive, he uses his size and foul mouth to get what he wants from criminals and fellow cops. Maybe you know a guy like this in whatever walk of life you trudge through on the way to the grave. He’s the kind of dude you need to just yes to death to keep him happy and your sanity intact. You might respect him for the work he does, and deep down he might be good cat, if you can see beneath the bellowing dragon that got you rolling around with a junkie in the shadow of some ghetto buildings that looked like they went through the Dresden firebombing. You sure as shit probably resent God, or the myriad of scientific theorems that determined that your place in the universe was to be partnered with this crazy, driven motherfucker. You can respect mad genius, you just don’t want to get sliced in the arm and fuck up your bowling game.
In an Oscar nominated performance, the late great Roy Scheider plays Buddy Russo, Doyle’s often put upon partner. Again proving that no one has ever had a cigarette dangle so hilariously from their lips, Scheider is tasked with sharing the screen with Hackman, who has the gift of being able to fill the frame and intimidate people like that bastard shark from Jaws. Scheider is great in this, offering a somewhat calming presence to Doyle’s cyclone of anger and disdain for authority. Russo is the likable wise-ass. He will first try to use some humor or reason to diffuse a situation, while Doyle goes straight for the body blows.
The Oscar winning script for this is lean and powerful like a sprinter’s legs. Screenwriter Ernest Tidyman wastes nary a minute on meaningless filler, back story or melodramatic monologues where we learn character’s motivations. It simply opens in Marseilles with someone getting their face blown off in a vicious red spray and ends in a hail of gunfire in an abandoned factory on Ward’s Island in NYC, with cops and robbers slipping through crumbling rooms and dark shadows like phantoms in a funhouse.
Like a muscle car weaving in and out of traffic at breakneck speed, the plot barrels forward leaving the audience glued to the screen. Alain Charnier(Fernando Rey) is looking to move millions of dollars of heroin to NYC where he can sell it to his mob contact Sal Boca, played by Tony Lo Bianco. Doyle and Russo get wind of this and convince their supervisor to get wire taps on the suspected parties. Since the NYPD doesn’t have a pot to piss in, two Feds are assigned to the case. One Fed, Mulderig(stunt driver/man and actor Bill Hickman) can’t stand Doyle and lets it be known from the start.
The directing, cinematography, editing and music are so good in this film that the audience is on the edge of their seat just by watching the cops tail the bad guys on foot. Jazzman Don Ellis’ score perfectly underscores the tension of pursuing a suspect while trying to remain just another face in the crowd. Not an easy thing to do when you are on the hunt for seasoned criminals. Watching Charnier elude a pissed off Doyle in the subway is a particularly well shot, exciting and humorous scene.
You may have heard about the chase in this. Like Tullamore Dew on Saturday nights, it is pretty spectacular.
Doyle’s pursuit of his would be assassin has become legendary, and deservedly so. The killer slips onto an elevated subway and Doyle doesn’t get to the train on time. He really doesn’t have much luck with public transportation in this film. On the street below, Doyle tries to flag down oncoming drivers. Luckily for him, the driver in the VW Beetle doesn’t pull over. You can’t blame the driver for not stopping for “the Man”. The sixties bled over into the seventies and Herbie the Love Bug wouldn’t stop for any pig. However, Doyle is able to commandeer a powerful Pontiac LeMans, with its hulking engine and body that is probably as tough as a Sherman tank. He goes into pursuit, the Pontiac’s tires squealing and smoking like delinquent thirteen year old girls. There are some great shots in the chase that really put the audience in the driver’s seat, or in the path of the oncoming car. One particularly effective shot is from about a block away, the camera races along with the car and we see it directly beneath the elevated subway train as it roars through stations.
Friedkin’s film won five Oscars in all and should be the gold badge standard of all cop films that follow it. The French Connection was based on an actual case. The two real life cops involved were Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, who both appear in the film. Egan is the cantankerous supervisor, Simonson. Grosso plays Klein, one of the Feds working with Doyle and Russo. This is a timeless classic and a must for lovers of seventies cinema.
You know who you are.