The French Connection dramatised the case of real-life New York detective Eddie Egan (the Popeye Doyle character) and his partner Salvatore ‘Sonny’ Grosso (the Buddy Russo character), who not only acted as technical advisers but also appeared in small roles in the film. It also re-wrote the rule book on cops and robbers movies.
From his constant drinking and racial slurs to his shocking shooting in the back of an escaping felon, he managed to polarise the audience. This was after all a real human being, with all of his bad points laid out for analysis.
Hanging out at an Eastside bar after work, ‘Popeye’ and ‘Cloudy’ notice suspiciously large sums of money being flashed by crooked playboy Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), and on a long-shot decide to tail him through the icy winter night.
At about 7 o’clock in the morning, they witness a drug drop at a corner store that soon puts them in hot pursuit of French drug boss Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).
With the help of French actor Henri Devereaux (Frederic De Pasquale), Charnier intends to flood the practically bone-dry New York drug market – a plan Doyle and Russo (who give the Frenchmen the labels “Frog One” and “Frog Two” while tailing them) will stop at nothing to foil.
Nobody is willing to believe the allegations of the two cops – and with good reason. Not only does the fanatic Doyle have a reputation that precedes him among the city’s scum, but his dubious crime-fighting methods have also tarnished his name among fellow officers and his superiors.
This, however, all proves of no consequence when the two detectives locate Devereaux’s car – an opulent Lincoln Continental which seems to be peculiarly overweight . . .
The shoot took place over five weeks on location during the harsh New York winter of 1970 and 1971, forcing both cast and crew to battle against often sub-zero temperatures. And much of the energy that sparks the film to life is the result of brilliant improvisation.
Hired on the basis of only two films (The Night They Raided Minsky’s and The Boys In The Band), director William Friedkin made the studio nervous, and rightly so.
The maverick director soon proved to be a nightmare, prone to intense fits of rage which, while shocking at the time, were only a taste of what was to come on the set of The Exorcist (1973).
For all his hollering and insults, though, the tension that Friedkin brought to the set paid off – the movie took Best Film and Best Director at the 1971 Academy Awards – and is splashed across the screen every time Hackman grits his teeth and hisses in the face of a perp (Hackman won the Best Actor Oscar).
In Popeye Doyle, we feel sympathy for this awkward pig of a man – simply because his flaws are believable, much like everything else in The French Connection.
The famous car-pursuing-train chase in which we see Doyle in a Pontiac sedan chasing French drug smuggler Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzufi) in an elevated subway carriage was initially added to the screenplay simply as a way to up the commercial ante – Producer Philip D’Antoni felt that the reason Bullitt (1968) had done so well was because of the hair-raising car chase through the streets of San Francisco and insisted there be one in this film as well.
Friedkin obliged, deciding to violate traffic laws rather than prearrange to have the street blocked off in order to add to the naturalism and almost documentary feel of the film.
Friedkin staged the action in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst in one continuous take with wildman stunt driver Bill Hickman driving some 26 blocks at 90 mph, narrowly missing real-life pedestrians in the name of unadulterated excitement.
The movie ends with an almost surreal sequence. We watch as a forlorn Doyle stumbles aimlessly into the darkness until he disappears completely. A lone shot is suddenly heard, but we are left with no answers as to who plugged whom or why.
It is an intriguingly obscure conclusion that even goes unexplained in the 1975 John Frankenheimer sequel The French Connection II, a piece that would prove to be yet another undisputed milestone in police drama.
The French Connection was a huge hit, reaping $26.3 million in US rentals before it played out, plus $12 million in foreign sales and $2 million in television sales.
Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle
Detective Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo
Tony Lo Bianco
Frederic De Pasquale
Mrs Marie Charnier
Commander Walt Simonson