Reliving THE FRENCH CONNECTION
by Robert Taylor / IAFT-L.A.
“I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.”
Watching The French Connection (1971) is the cinematic equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to the chest. The tension in this movie is almost unbearable.
Gene Hackman’s NYPD cop Popeye Doyle is a blunt object you fully believe will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. You are terrified of what would happen if you crossed him, and by the time he gets in that car to begin the nail-biting, landmark chase after an elevated train, you aren’t as worried for him as you are for the bystanders.
Director William Friedkin turns New York City into a character. And it’s a decaying, gray corpse of a city. The sky is always cloudy, the streets are nearly deserted—though the trains are packed. And after Doyle’s obsession begins, the noises of the city gradually dissipate until all we hear is the echo of his shoes on the pavement.
Friedkin shoots France and Washington D.C. in stark contrast to this, further underlining that Doyle’s actions might be futile because the city is already too far gone.
This story isn’t a character study. It’s a series of moments, large and small. As interesting as Doyle is, if the movie had stopped for even one moment to attempt to understand him or empathize with him, it would have imploded.
After his classic introduction in his Santa suit, you might begin asking yourself questions about Hackman’s character, but by the time his partner shows up at his apartment to find him handcuffed by his ankle to a bedpost, you stop asking and just go with it.
Newer movies have forgotten how to build tension. The French Connection reminds me just how explosive a film can be if paced with delicate precision.
In this case, evolving from a beautifully choreographed, almost-Hitchcockian sequence of calculated, dance-with-death suspense on a subway platform, filmed with as little dialogue as possible—and there are wonderfully eerie patches of the movie with no dialogue whatsoever—and developing ultimately into one of the greatest white-knuckle chase sequences ever filmed, when Doyle pursues a French killer onto an elevated train.
About that gripping chase: Comparisons are often made to Bullitt (1968), but for me it has more in common with the climax of Strangers on a Train (1951), with a runaway NYTA train substituted for the gone-crazy merry-go-round.
The French killer takes the train engineer hostage and speeds off. Doyle, still on the pavement below, stops the first automobile he can and pursues the train at obscene speeds, below the tracks, through the crowded Brooklyn streets.
Both parallel actions—the elevated train and Hackman’s street-level pursuit of it—are fantastic in and of themselves, but when intercut with one another, it makes it almost unwatchably suspenseful.
All of this is made even more extraordinary because you know for a fact you’re watching a real car weave through actual Brooklyn streets in pursuit of a real train…not some CGI bullshit on a computer.
Put it all together and by the time a woman pushing a baby carriage gets in the way of Doyle’s car, I found myself gasping uncontrollably.
That’s how tension is built over the course of a story.
Despite these big moments, some of the most memorable things about The French Connection are the little throwaway bits. A cop nonchalantly traps a possible drug dealer by pushing him in a phone booth and then shoving a desk against it. Doyle eating shitty pizza in the biting cold while the man he’s following eats like a king inside a restaurant. Or Doyle mixing all the narcotics he finds in a bar together with beer in a martini shaker while asking, “Anybody want a milkshake?”
The French Connection is a near-perfect example of a movie knowing exactly what it is and what it needs to accomplish, then doing that without adding anything unnecessary. And it was shot for less than two million dollars.
It’s real, it’s terrifying, and it’s brilliant.
“Hey, Doyle. You still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?”
- Writer: Ernest Tidyman (with an uncredited rewrite by Howard Hawks), based on the book by Robin Moore
- Director: William Friedkin
- Actors: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony LoBiano, Marcel Bozzuffi, Bill Hickman, Eddie Egan, Sonny Grosso
- Cinematography: Owen Roizman
- Editing: Jerry Greenberg
Photos: spikemagazine.com, emanuellevy.com