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50 Years Later: The French Connection

7 October 21 words: Aaron Roe

Five decades on and we’re still picking our feet in Poughkeepsie…

Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider
Running time: 104 minutes

When the sex, drugs and rock ’n roll generation turned their hand to filmmaking in the late Sixties, the results culminated into what is now one of the most infamous time periods in American cinema. The social and political anxieties were vocalised by a fresh crop of young (predominately white-male) directors in ways which were seldom seen before or since. Belonging to this motley crew of megalomaniacs was William Friedkin, who before reaching the stratosphere with The Exorcist delivered the first major hit of his career with The French Connection in 1971. 

Gene Hackman is Jimmy Doyle, a brash, brazen and unapologetically brutish narcotics officer who’s one-track mind leads to only one thing: busting cases. “Popeye” Doyle’s street senses start tingling when suave, unassuming businessman Alain Charnier (Fernando Ray) travels from Marseille to New York to distribute some very sensitive contraband. What ensues is an intricately constructed, consistently thrilling cat and mouse chase spanning the subways and backstreets of New York.

Friedkin thrusts us into the grimy existence of a Narcotics Officer, bridging the gap between action and realism with a hand-held documentary style which perfectly captures the hostility and sleaze of 1970s New York – the stink of the streets hits us harder than Doyle hits his collars. Like Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, Freidkin was able to harness New York, allowing the city to become a central character; it pulsates with raw, gritty, sexy energy which is singular to that space and that time. The antagonistic current of the city often leaves Doyle throwing his porkpie hat in frustration when it allows the French kingpin to melt away in the subway – then there’s the traffic, the tedium, bad coffee during the biting winter chill. Is Doyle a product of his environment, or is the environment a product of Doyle? The answer to this question, much like Charnier, manages to elude Popeye.

The real power hinges on Hackman’s ability to convey a man crippled by his own obsessions, and a portrait of an enforcer of the law that seems all too familiar to us now

Ernest Tidyman’s script is tight and the narrative spine has a hard-boiled crudeness; the onslaught of bar-raising set pieces ensures that the plot maintains a breakneck pace, leaving the audience without any time for a breather. But there’s no real reason for a breather, especially when the only character who has real substance is Hackman, who so dominates the screen. Unlike his loyal partner Russo (Roy Scheider), one may have a hard time riding shotgun for one of Doyle’s hunches. He throws around racial slurs as easy as he throws his weight against anyone who would stand in the way of his crusade – which,  in light of recent police brutality, may make Doyle hard for contemporary audiences to stomach.

During the film's iconic centrepiece – a car chasing a train through Brooklyn – it wasn’t the action that affected me. The chase is still as intense as ever, but it’s the close-ups of Hackman, the mania he shows as he is tearing up the streets in a civilian's car he’s just hijacked, that show a man possessed – the one thing that’s missing from Hackman’s performance is green bile and a 360 head spin. A demonic spirit is replaced by ego, past failures, self-righteousness and toxic masculinity. There’s never a moment where Doyle looks back at what he’s left in his wake, making the film's finale even more harrowing fifty years later.

Upon its release, revered critic Gene Siskel wrote in the Chicago Tribune that the film would “cure the tedium of your own life” – and there’s certainly ample thrill and genre tropes to do so. But the real power hinges on Hackman’s ability to convey a man crippled by his own obsessions, and a portrait of an enforcer of the law that seems all too familiar to us now. 

Did you know? Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle was inspired by the real life cop Eddie Eagen, who appears in the film as Simonson.

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