The French Connection (1971)

William Friedkin | 1hr 41min

There is a lot resting on the detective instincts of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. If we had any less faith in his assumptions, he might come off as a far more incompetent character than he is. Even though he proves his resourcefulness right from the very first scene in getting the information he seeks from a suspect, we still harbour some reservations around his methods and the extreme lengths he will often go to. At his loudest and most persistent, he will speed down a busy highway, destroying several cars and risking his own life to hunt down a dangerous assassin, though he is also just as willingly to stand patiently outside in the freezing cold for hours on end, waiting to catch sight of a suspect. There is no spectrum of possibility or effort in his work – everything is either a lead worth following to its bitter end, or not worth his time at all. 

All it takes is one of those hunches for Popeye to latch onto a $32 million shipment of heroin arriving in New York in a few weeks’ times, and then he’s off, spinning himself up in a cat-and-mouse chase with a drug syndicate led by French mobster Alain Charnier. Around them is a vision of America’s most populous city grounded in raw cinematic realism, flooded with stagnant puddles of muddy water and coated in at least a few layers of grime. Working in the same vein as the French auteurs of the 1960s who moved their films beyond artificial studio sets to shoot on location, William Friedkin takes to the streets of New York to capture a level of authenticity that cannot be replicated anywhere else, right down to the steam billowing out from underground vents. Its instantly recognisable cityscape looms tall in backgrounds, and he often washes it in a natural blue light which, while certainly beautiful at times in its softness, more frequently works to encase these detectives and criminals in the harsh frigidity of the New York winter. 

Inspired by the Italian neo-realists, Friedkin uses his shooting location as a derelict character unto itself, often washing it in this blue natural light that emphasises its cold, gritty authenticity.

It is also a city of remarkable disparity though, and we can gage a lot about where these cops and criminals stand in how Friedkin works to contrast them in his editing. While Charnier is fine dining with associates in a high-end restaurant, Popeye is staking out the building with his partner, Cloudy, standing outside for hours on end, eating nothing but greasy pizza and coffee. At another point while Charnier stands atop skyscrapers overlooking magnificent views, Popeye remains down on ground level, barely allowing himself any time off the job to relax. Where Charnier’s dialogue is refined and mannered, Popeye proves himself to be a true New Yorker in his fast-talking mix of shouts and mumbles, offering a magnificent Gene Hackman the chance to improvise entire sequences with extraordinary vigour and naturalism.

Magnificent form in how Friedkin shoots Popeye on the ground versus how he shoots Charnier against the towering New York cityscape.

Where the two sides of this city are bound together is in their incredible intelligence and patience, relying on their wits to outsmart each other in this complex dance of crime and justice. Popeye is methodical in his manipulations, shifting his tactics to either befuddle, intimidate, or give his suspects false confidence depending on what the situation calls for, and though this works for low-level crooks who lack judiciousness and restraint, Charnier makes for a fairly equal match in his crafty machinations. In a sequence of pure tension and visual storytelling, Popeye stalks the mobster through the streets and underground stations of New York, and in Don Ellis’ grumbling staccato underscore of cellos and double basses he accompanies each glimpse of Charnier’s silver umbrella with a metal clang. Friedkin’s editing jumps lightly between both men, matching the movements of their legs as if racing the two against each other, and finally ending this dance when Popeye falls a second behind, letting Charnier make his getaway.

Repetitive rhythms in the editing – Charnier’s legs, Popeye’s legs, Charnier descending the stairs, and the next shot following Popeye right behind him.

A similar juxtaposition is also set out in one of the greatest car chases committed to film, where we see a hitman run onto a train in the chaotic aftermath of a failed assassination, and Popeye defiantly driving after him beneath an elevated railway. It is a great feat of editing, not just in the fast-moving action of his destructive pursuit along the crowded avenue, but also in the intercutting of his target’s actions on the train, growing steadily more desperate until he commits a fatal error in drawing attention to himself. Friedkin achieves a thrillingly tight balance here, once again pitting Popeye against yet another criminal, though one significantly less competent than Charnier.

Smoothly intercutting between Popeye’s car chase and the hitman making his getaway on the train directly above him. A fine piece of editing belonging among the best of the 1970s.
A bullet in the back capping Popeye’s ruthless hunt, and creating perhaps the film’s most recognisable image.

Outside these high-intensity scenes of life and death, Popeye is playing a game of patience. The same patience is asked of us in Friedkin’s meticulous teasing out of this narrative, with the inbuilt promise that there will eventually be some sort of reward for it, whether that be a victory for the police or the drug traffickers. It is certainly the case in each stake out, as well as the meticulously detailed sequence of a suspicious car being dismantled part by part to discover where the bags of heroin might be hidden, though it also one that Friedkin turns on us in the film’s final minutes, when we find ourselves waiting for the biggest pay-off of all. As we approach the denouement, Popeye’s success in busting the drug operation is abruptly soured by his own need for personal vengeance, chasing after Charnier through a dilapidated warehouse where he inadvertently shoots and kills a colleague. This might as well be a footnote to the rest of the scene though, as the detective barely stops to ponder his guilt before moving onto the next room over. Meanwhile, the camera hangs back, as if finally exhausted by his stubborn persistence.

In this moment, there is no resounding climax where Popeye or Charnier finally face off and decide who dies. Instead, a series of title cards simply informs us of their relatively unspectacular futures, both making it out alive though with nothing to gain or celebrate. In any earlier era of Hollywood filmmaking, The French Connection might have once drawn out this bitter feud to a poetically fateful ending, though in this thrilling tense narrative of sharp, biting cynicism, Friedkin chooses to finally separate us from Popeye’s obstinate need for closure, and instead allows us to simply sit in the disappointment of his demoralising personal failure.

This dark, abandoned warehouse makes for a fantastic set piece, and an especially great final shot as Popeye runs away from the camera into the next room.

The French Connection is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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