Viking Night: The French Connection
By Bruce Hall
August 12, 2014
So, what the hell am I doing writing about The French Connection? Not the fashion boutique - this is the gritty, uncompromising police thriller that has won more awards than Peyton Manning, including Best Picture of 1971. It is the film that made Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider household names. It is director William Friedkin’s best known film outside The Exorcist, which is the only movie other than Blues Brothers 2000 that I’m too scared to ever watch again (but for completely different reasons). Adjusted for inflation, it made what today would be almost $300 million at the domestic box office.
Basically, this is not the kind of movie I normally write about.
But something happened last week - something that makes me sad for the future of humanity. There’s a gal I work with who’s young enough not to have seen most of the greatest movies ever made, but old enough that she probably should have anyway. A discussion about great movie car chases came up. I mentioned The French Connection - which technically was a car-chasing-a-train-chase. Her response was the kind of expression I’d expect after telling someone a meteor the size of Australia - and filled with zombies - was dropping in 30 minutes.
Is it foolish of me to expect someone born during the Reagan Administration to have seen The French Connection? I don’t know - we’ve all seen The Wizard of Oz, haven’t we? How about The Godfather? Sadly, this concludes the list of films prior to 1980 that most people under 30 have ever seen with the possible exception of Superman, which is the only other place this person could recall having seen Gene Hackman. This is the America we live in, my friends. Some would say the terrorists have already won, but not me. I plan to fight back the only way I know how, which is by writing about a movie so old that half the people in it are dead.
Take THAT, Al Qaeda.
Speaking of criminal dirtbags, heroin was the cocaine of the 1960s and ‘70s, and at the time a lot of it came into the country through France. I guess that’s what happens when you clear all the Nazis out of your neighbor’s yard. They show up at your door 25 years later with $35 million worth of smack. One man who’s had enough of this is NYPD narcotics detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman). He and his partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) spend their days getting stabbed by two bit pushers in urine soaked back alleys, and their nights washing down the pain with booze.
Well, Popeye does, anyway. One of the most compelling aspects of The French Connection is that the protagonist is considerably less likeable than the eventual villains. Popeye is a crass, violent, misogynistic racist who is either drunk or hungover from being drunk at all times. As a result, he’s a middle aged cop who lives alone and is kept on a very short professional leash. He and his younger sidekick seem pretty tight, but it’s not exactly a bromance. You get the impression they’d never be friends if they didn’t work together, and Cloudy is smart enough to toe the line and support his partner.
The detectives stumble onto something potentially big when a small time bust leads them to a big time lawyer whose mafia connections move a lot of drugs. Not coincidentally, international drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is on his way to New York from France, where he’s been busy planning what could be the biggest heroin drop of all time - with the very same people New York's finest have their eye on. Eager to redeem his tattered reputation, Popeye convinces his commander to let him run with the case. But the hard charging detectives have no idea how out of their league it is. Charnier is as suave and clever as a Bond villain, and his murderous henchmen really love their work.
A booze addled narcotics cop who changes his clothes twice a week hardly seems like a match.
And therein lies the appeal of The French Connection, at least for me. By modern standards, a heroin smuggling ring seems like a quaint problem. But the real conflict in this story comes from the fact that a not-particularly-great cop just happens to be right about this one thing - but due to his reputation cannot get the support he needs to prevail in a situation where he’s tactically and intellectually outmatched. Friedkin’s grainy, documentary style footage gives the film a haunted, street level feeling - you can’t help but feel invested in the action. And Ernest Tidyman’s (the man who brought us Shaft) screenplay keeps the dialogue to a minimum. What words are spoken are often muffled, inaudible or esoteric enough that you are required to follow the action on a visceral, rather than intellectual level.
Just like Popeye.
So what the hell AM I doing writing about The French Connection? If you’re the kind of person who was surprised to find out movies existed before you were born, I can’t in good conscience recommend it. There are no nonsensical plot twists designed to cover up bad writing, no pointless Macguffins meant to replace actual plot development, and no narratively empty action sequences that destroy entire city blocks. It’s a slow burn, inspired by French cinema and sporting a classic jazz inspired soundtrack that isn’t particularly memorable, but provides enough background jitter to keep you off balance whether there’s anything happening on screen or not. But if you’re willing to expand your horizons, just trust me. You’ll think you don’t like it at first, but the next morning you’ll think about Popeye Doyle and realize - just because someone’s a prick doesn’t mean they can’t be right sometimes.