The French Connection, which won five Oscars including Best Picture, marks its 50th anniversary since its 1971 theatrical release.
In addition to Best Picture, the film won for Director, Actor (Gene Hackman), Film Editing and Adapted Screenplay. What set this film apart from others is that Friedkin shot it in a style known more because of documentaries at the time. The film’s grittiness wasn’t something typically scene in narrative features heading into 1971. You can also make the argument that the film came at the beginning of New Hollywood following the fall of the studio system. There’s no argument that it’s one of the greatest films ever made in cinematic history. My only regret is that my first viewing of the William Friedkin classic didn’t come until today’s anniversary. Fifty years later, you cannot not experience tension when watching one of the best on-screen chases in history. The film shares a producer with Bullitt but makes the chase as different as possible.
NYPD detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) pursue wealthy French heroin smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Doyle and Russo are based on real-life Narcotics Detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. I don’t really need to rehash the plot. They do make some dramatic liberties from the actual case but that’s how cinema works. There was no chase in real life but it’s a thrilling chase that works in the film. It’s a police investigation into narcotics with stupendous filmmaking on the side. A lot of what makes this film work is how Friedkin approaches the style. Suffice it to say, filmmaking would never be the same. You could certainly say the same thing about most 1970s films.
I’ve seen clips of the chase before since I watched Friedkin Uncut back in 2018. Trains get up to a max speed of 50 mph whereas the car can reach faster speeds and catch up. It’s a classic scene and because of the train tracks, it doesn’t really require a musical score to accompany the chase. There’s no score (only sound effects) for the scene in the film but Friedkin used Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” as temp music while working on the edit. Be sure to check out “Anatomy of a Chase” if you own the most recent Blu-ray. Alternatively, you could read Friedkin’s own comments on the DGA website. A filmmaker like Christopher Nolan might work the scene differently. Knowing what we know about Nolan’s work, the sound mix would be quite differently from Friedkin’s work.
You could possibly pull off the chase today but it would be hard to do in a big city. But for its era, it’s truly impressive filmmaking coming at a time when cinema was changing. The chase scene doesn’t happen without Friedkin getting advice from Howard Hawks. Hawks made a comment about making a good chase. The rest is history!
This could have been just another cops vs. criminals movie. It isn’t, thankfully. The film is able to transcend the genre and become something else so to speak. Could you make it the same way today? I don’t know because of current attitudes towards policing. It isn’t uncommon to find corruption within the police force and there have been films made about the matter. Hell, Hitler in Los Angeles (a spy thriller just asking to be made, I must say) speaks of a good amount of corrupt police officers. One of the film’s marketing taglines reads as follows: “Doyle is bad news but a good cop.”
In terms of the cast, Friedkin initially wanted Paul Newman but he was well out of budget range. Even in early incarnations, the talk was Ben Gazzara as Egan and Newman as Grosso. It feels that Friedkin had to settle on Hackman only after everyone else passed or was ruled out in one way or another. Even the casting of Fernando Rey is a classic example of mistaken identity! Friedkin asked about an actor named Francisco Rabal but as it turned out, he couldn’t speak English or French. As such, Rey stayed in the picture. But still, it’s so hard imagining this film with either actor not being in their roles. Meanwhile, I’ve watched Jaws so often that I can’t not think of Roy Scheider’s sheriff whenever I see him in anything else.
The French Connection helps bring about a new era in filmmaking–much thanks to Friedkin and company–and cinema would never be the same.
DIRECTOR: William Friedkin
SCREENWRITER: Ernest Tidyman
CAST: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi