A quick break from the Fellini circus.
This is a stripped down bare version of the crime thriller. Characters exist purely as archetypes with little to no life outside of the job at hand. The movie is purely about the crime and ensuing investigation. The movie is told in a handheld, cinema verité style that was fresh to the genre at the time, which explains a lot of the love for the film in the 70s. It was a new way to tell a story, but once you get past that you realize that the actual story is pretty standard and the characters are rather thin. It’s an entertaining 104 minutes, for sure, but I question its level of greatness.
So, the story centers around Popeye Doyle, a hard nosed cop in New York who does nothing but his job and drink (and occasionally pick up random women on the street) who just loves shaking down petty criminals in the narcotics division with his partner Buddy Russo. One night after work, Popeye and Buddy catch sight of a table of known criminal elements at a table by accident which pings their radar, and they start to look into it. Combined with the fact that the drug scene they’re navigating seems paltry, Doyle is convinced there’s something big going on with the people at that table. With a wiretap, they discover that their lead, Sal Boca, is interacting with a Frenchman who could be the source of a new shipment of drugs. It’s thin stuff, and Popeye is on a short leash. It all pans out, of course, or else there’s no movie.
The movie has no real mystery to it since we know from the beginning that Frog 1 (Alain, played by Fernando Rey) is bringing in drugs, that he’s using a French television star to do it, and that it has something to do with the star’s car (the only real mystery is where in the car), but that’s why its stylistic choices end up being so important. There’s an urgency to the action that the rough production aesthetic lends to the events that help buoy the story along. Sure, we know that Sal is working with Alain well ahead of Popeye figuring it out, but the joy is the process as we watch Alain and Popeye dance around each other.
The sequence where Popeye chases Alain around on foot through New York, with Alain jumping on and off subway trains, all while everyone in frame knows that Popeye is chasing Alain and that Alain knows it, is really strong material made out of glances and physical movement. And I think this sequence highlights the movie’s central joys: despite its thinness, the movie is really well made. The feeling of tangible reality brought on by the extensive location shooting in dirty 1970s New York City provides a wonderful texture to the action and a great setting for Gene Hackman’s Popeye to exist. His angry and violent approach to policework fits like a glove in this place. The violence of knife fights breaking out in the streets feels at home.
Directed by William Friedkin, The French Connection understood how to combine its setting and material in a production appropriately and with real energy. Directing Gene Hackman into a rather memorable performance as Doyle, Friedkin helped craft a vivid archetype of the dedicated and morally suspect cop. The rest of the cast doesn’t stand out nearly as much. As supporting players with little character to build off of, they act more as cogs in a machine than living breathing people. Fernando Rey, though, does bring a coy intelligence to Alain. The only actor who seems to be playing a full character is Frederic de Pascquale as Henri Devereaux, the French television star, though he’s still rather limited to “in over his head” guy.
I do quite enjoy the ride that is The French Connection. It’s a technically proficient procedural. That aforementioned foot chase and the famed car chase (car vs. elevated train) are really edge of your seat type stuff, built expertly and cut together cleanly at the same time. I just kind of wish there was something more to any of these characters. Popeye, I think, is fine as he is as the rock on which this movie operates, but Buddy or Alain could have used more. Still, it’s an entertaining ride while it lasts with that dirty 70s aesthetic and a surprisingly open-ended ending.