Classic Flix Review: The French Connection (1971)

Greetings all and sundry! I am going to take a well deserved respite from Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck and take a few moments to wax poetic and nostalgic about a film that solidly grabbed my attention more than forty years ago. One that firmly anchored the concept of the ‘Partner Film’. Which is very different than a ‘Cop’ or ‘Buddy’ film. The basis for a delightfully suspenseful Procedural. Which also that puts front and center, superb on location shooting in and around Manhattan and its seven boroughs. To these ends, allow me to introduce or re-introduce you to:

The French Connection (1971)

A film that begins not in the city that never sleeps, but in the narrow, rain damped side streets of Marseilles and its many cubby hole hostels and boarding houses. We see a man amble down a cobbled sidewalk to enter a hostel. Check his mail and enter his room. Where someone in the shadows shoots him and walks off with a hunk of his target’s bagged Baguette.

Cut to the snowy, cold, pre Christmas streets of New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. Where a team of undercover Narcotics cops; Gene Hackman’s ‘Popeye’ Doyle in Santa Claus mufti and Roy Scheider’s ‘Cloudy’ Russo, in dock worker drag watch a buy for heroin happen. Cloudy announces himself. The junkie runs and Popeye gives chase across streets and through alleys. To catch the buyer and shake him down hard after Cloudy has his coat and arm slashed by the junkie’s switch blade. Questions precede ignorance. The junk is booked as evidence and another drug arrest is made by the team that leads all boroughs in arrests, but very few convictions.

Paperwork follows. Also a talking to by Captain Simonson. Well played by Eddie Egan, the hero of Robin Moore’s original book. Who wants Popeye and Cloudy to bring in something that could go before a Grand Jury and get convictions. To that end Popeye and Cloudy decide to do some after hour bar-hopping. That leads to them spotting a relatively small time local thief sharing drinks with three of the biggest drug connections through the boroughs. Curious and curiouser, Popeye and Cloudy tail the local hood, Sal Boca, hungrily played by a loud and boorish Tony Lo Bianco. He and his wife, Angie run a Brooklyn luncheonette and really have no business rubbing elbows with such heavy hitters.

More information is needed. So Popeye and Cloudy show in great detail the proper way to take down an after hours Brooklyn bar. The undercover cop they seek is taken aside and relays that a large shipment of heroin is due in and a lot of people are going to get well. Warrants for wiretaps are sought. Popeye and Cloudy stake out Sal and Angie’s luncheonette and shake down their snitches for more to go on. While at a Staten Island junkyard cars are being auctioned. And a big, black Lincoln is bought by one of Sal’s cousins. Then sent off to Marseilles.

Enter Charnier. The smooth, suave, sophisticated Puppet Master and Mastermind who loads said Lincoln with sixty kilos of 89% pure heroin. To be trans-shipped to New York under the protective entourage of a french celebrity whose gambling markers Charnier has bought up. A pretty slick operation that starts to show signs of cracking as wire taps bring in the Feds. Who want nothing to do with Doyle or Russo as stake outs continue and a test is made of the incoming product. Sal’s higher ups are leery and want to take their time. Sal pushes on as Charnier and his crew arrive in Manhattan. Jacking up the overall pressure to get things done by about five fold. First Cloudy, then Popeye notice Charnier’s new face and start nosing around in earnest. Watching their new prey enjoy a sumptuous meal while Popeye noshes on pizza and lousy coffee in sub zero temperatures.

The game is afoot as Charnier leaves and Popeye and Cloudy try to give chase as ‘The Frog’ slips away on a subway car under Grand Central Station. But not before Popeye and Charnier get a good long look at each other. Pressure builds up as the Frog’s celebrity flunky starts to get cold feet. A contract is put out on Doyle and is not quite carried out the next day by one of Charnier’s henchmen. Who misses with a scoped rifle from just over 100 yards and starts what is considered to be the second greatest chase in cinematic history. With a commandeered Pontiac LeMans versus a speeding elevated train. And ends with the shooter being back shot on the train’s stairs by Popeye before he passes out.

What to do? What to do? Popeye, Cloudy and the Feds stake out Charnier’s Lincoln and scoop it up as it is about to be stripped on a Bed~Stuy side street. The Lincoln is impounded and stripped from bumper to bumper. Invoices are checked and weights compared and the Lincoln is heavier than it should be by over 150 pounds. The extra weight is found in its rocker panels below the sedan’s door. The car is quickly reassembled and fluids topped off before being returned to Charnier and company.’

The final act begins with Charnier and his minions traveling to Sal’s cousin’s junk yard. Where the deal is completed. Money is exchanged for heroin and all is well with the world. Until the Frog and company leave and run into a road block led by a waving Popeye. Who follows the Lincoln as it is funneled back to the yard surrounded by hidden cops and anxious Feds.

I’ll leave the story right here. So as not to tip my hand too much and violate Spoiler Territory.

Now, what Makes This Film Good?

William Friedkin at the controls of an at its time, history making and record breaking story focused in and all around Manhattan and filmed during one of coldest, most miserable winters on record. Which only adds to the atmosphere and slowly building tension and suspense as a less than fabulous looking city plays a supporting character. Backing up a cast of relative unknowns who were given large, meaty parts and pursued them with gusto and confidence.

Especially Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider who were allowed to hang out with Eddie Egan and his partner, Sonny Grosso to learns the ins and outs of police work. Taking down bars and criminals and understanding the bond between two people who may not like, but understand and will back each other up. Watching them on the screen is what makes the film more than the sum of its parts.

The same can be said of the ensemble of bad guys and girls. Tony Lo Bianco rocks out loud as the small timer with enormous dreams beyond his reach. Urged on somewhat annoyingly by Arlene Farber as Sal’s wife, Angie. And Sal’s faceless fat, quiet and content higher ups in organized crime. The tension between them is palpable. While Fernando Rey’s smugly arrogant and elegant Charnier moves blissfully along. Until things start going from annoying to bad to very near fatal.

Kudos to Owen Roizman for finding countless corners, both busy and deserted, alley ways and abandoned sites of construction and destruction that add authenticity to a time of the city’s faded splendor. Also camera man Enrique Bravo for coming up with a new and unique use of a wheelchair to use in place of a rolling dolly shot early on when the Christmas junkie is taken down.

Editing is superb throughout. Handled by Gerald B. Greenberg who took the extra time to cut the snippets of the elevated train chase and Hackman in pursuit to a heart stopping fare thee well. As is the bass and cello heavy soundtrack masterfully handled by Don Ellis.

What Makes This Film Great?

Friedkin, Hackman and Scheider swinging for the fences and connecting. The latter, completely comfortable in their own skins portraying cops with no outside friends or social lives. Following leads that appear thin at first, yet slowly bearing fruit later on. Working from a screenplay from Ernest Tidyman after Shaft and before Report To The Commissioner that rings true. Especially between Popeye, Cloudy and the Feds. And when Scheider takes his time to un-cuff Hackman’s ankle from the head board of an abandoned one night stand before  another day of work.

Bill Hickman has not gotten enough love for his hair raising chase with the elevated train. Even if it was done after weeks of timing a string of stop lights in Bensonhurst and having police with sirens chasing him. A flawless piece of action that still stands the test of time and comes in just under his stunt driven chase in Bullitt.

The Film’s Mystique:

Friedkin working with a relatively small budget and spending it well and frugally. Rejecting original ideas of using Paul Newman or Jackie Gleason for the lead. Which would have wreaked havoc financially and opting for young and hungry talent. Hackman wisely jumped on the role after Peter Boyle, much to later chagrin, turned it down.

The French Connection was nominated to the National Film Registry in 1971 and accepted in 2005.

Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews

What do you think of The French Connection? Do share ’em in the comments.

38 thoughts on “Classic Flix Review: The French Connection (1971)

  1. Great review Ruth! I just watched this for the first time recently too. I liked it more than The Conversation which I have also just seen for the first time. Hackman plays this grizzled cop to perfection. Love the working class cop versus the posh villain aspect and that car chase is still a great watch! It does use great locations and I included it in my top 10 NY movies list. It’s great Hackman got this role. He is outstanding. Need to watch the sequel still though.

    1. Ted S.

      Pete, I would advise you not to see the sequel to this film. I thought part 2 was pretty dreadful. But if you really want to see it, just be warn it’s not anything like the first film.

      1. The only reason I want to see the sequel is to see what happens to Charnier. I kinda guess it won’t live up to the original, even though it’s Frankenheimer directing, right?

        1. Ted S.

          Yeah, Frankenheimer directed it but I think he just made it for the paycheck because the film was so boring and too generic for my liking. The first time I saw it, I must’ve dosed off a few times. Then years later I watched it again and it still stinks.

    2. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Pete.

      Thanks so much!

      Gene Hackman started hitting his stride as a serious back up player in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘The Gypsy Moths’ and ‘Marooned’ before being given the opportunity to plunge in deep and ply his craft as ‘Popeye’ Doyle and make it his own.

      I kind of agree with you regarding ‘The Conversation’. Where Hackman tested the waters of playing against type and found it very worthwhile.

      It’s also fun to see Friedkin play with the differences between the classes in ‘The French Connection’. The scene where Charnier dines on one side of the glass of an upscale restaurant while Popeye noshes a cold slice of pizza and lousy coffee on the opposite street corner is classic!

      A word of advice on the sequel. It is not what you think it should be and requires a few grains of salt while watching.

  2. Ted S.

    You’ve reviewed a film I actually saw Jack!! 🙂

    I love The French Connection, probably one of the best thrillers of that decade. I think it pretty much started the term “gritty” in action films. Friedkin was on top of his game around this time and of course Hackman was great as always.

    Great review!

    1. jackdeth72

      Woohoo, Ted!

      Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      Friedkin played in the stratosphere that Sidney Lumet mastered long ago.
      In using Manhattan and its many boroughs as secondary characters in films. I deliberately avoided its glorious grittiness in my review. Knowing that others would bring it to light.

      Taking a good story and supplying with an excellent, anxious to make their mark cast and crew and creating a Masterpiece!

      That if tried today, would easily cost a third to half its budget on getting permits, permission and protection to shoot in so many locations.

  3. It IS hard to fully express the greatness of this movie without going into spoilers about the ending, isnt it? I mean, that ending just doesnt get made today. No way.

    Nice writeup, nice look back. That chase scene is awesome, youre 110% correct. 😀

    1. I know Fogs!! I was like what? what?? It was so suspenseful though, I love it. Man that Charnier is so darn elusive.

      I’m glad I saw this one and your review from last week gave me the extra push to finally watch this, so thank you!

    2. jackdeth72

      Hi, Fogs:

      To have slipped into Spoiler Territory would have been disastrous.

      Though your review goes much more deeply into the nuts and bolts of the film. The build up to the eventual pay off is more than worth the trip!

  4. After watching L.A. Confidential which is all about cops in Los Angeles, perhaps I should follow-up with this other classic by one of the best underrated actors out there: Mr. Gene Hackman. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of this one, so I definitely want to sit and enjoy it in one swoop.

    Thanks for your always informative reviews!

    1. Oh I LOVE L.A. Confidential! That’s one of the best neo noir ever made I think. I highly recommend this Niels, Hackman is outstanding here, as he always is.

    2. jackdeth72

      Hi, Blog:

      Always a pleasure to have you drop by!

      ‘The French Connection’ moved Mr. Hackman and Scheider from the realm of firmly planted character actors into the strata of solid A-List, go-to guys.

      While ‘L.A. Confidential’ is a superb and suspenseful period piece. The two films are very similar in their solid back up talent (Tony Lo Bianco, Eddie Egan and James Cromwell leap to mind!) and their abilities to thrust the leads into the spotlight.

  5. Another classic I haven’t seen *sigh… Great review Jack though, definitely have me interested in renting it at some point. Great cast and I love these kind of stories.

    1. Better late than never Castor, hey I still have a TON of stuff Jack has reviewed that I still haven’t seen, ahah. This is right up your alley so I think you’ll appreciate this film.

    2. jackdeth72

      Hi, Castor:

      Thanks for the compliment.

      Hackman and Scheider definitely pull the plow in this film, but the secondary players stand out as well.

      Tony Lo Bianco, who wondrously plays Sal Boca caught my eye. And I was pleased to see him opposite Roy Scheider in ‘The Seven Ups’ two years later. Directed by Philip D’Antoni and a lot of the crew from ‘The French Connection’ and shot in New York. It’s not quite a sequel, but the film does show the durability of a Chevy Nova in a high speed chase!

  6. Wonderful piece on a pure gem from the 70s that is a slice of American cinéma-vérité by Friedkin. 1971 sure had some iconic, gritty films for the year that simply blew people away when they caught them on screen: Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, including the break-through Shaft, and others. Two crime classics, along with those mentioned, epitomized that year for me still: The French Connection in the U.S. and Mike Hodges’ Get Carter from the U.K. (if you’re interested, I wrote that one up last year over at a friend’s blog). This one is a demarcation line, of sorts. There are things that came before and those that came (and we’re influenced by the film) after it. Well done, Kevin.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Michael:

      Great insights!

      I’ve long considered the 1970s to be the last great era for film. And ‘The French Connection’ and several films you mentioned rate very high on what can be achieved with a savvy, confident director, a good story, cast and crew and the freedom to romp, play and excel.

      ‘The French Connection’, ‘Get Carter’ and ‘Dirty Harry’ broke many rules. Showing good guys and bad guys saying and doing things never seen in film before. Offering new glimpses and different outcomes to the masses that were hungrily devoured.

      I’d venture that Dassin’s ‘The Naked City’ was the template for ‘The French Connection’ in regards to procedure. Taken to the next level by Friedken and company. Creating an icon that stands tall and has been shamelessly imitated in countless films, television series and a few Ford and Lincoln commercials.

      The same impetus and mindset that gave us ‘Get Carter’ and planted Michael Caine on the map. Evolved into ‘The Long Good Friday’ less than a decade later and put Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren on the map.

  7. impsndcnma

    Of course I’ve heard of The French Connection, but I’ve never had an urge to see it. From the way you describe it, it seems more like a film fan’s film as opposed to an anybody film.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, imp!

      I’ve been hoping you would drop by.

      You do bring up a different and viable perspective.

      A buddy of mine and I saw ‘The French Connection’ at a drive in back in 1974, basically on my word and expressed enthusiasm. Being much more of a music guy and future Elvis impersonator. The film did not click with him. Even the chase scene earned an disinterested shrug.

  8. FUNK

    Thanks Jack for bring back memories of another great film of the 70’s, and of course Gene Hackman, a few other 1970’s films I liked Mr. Hackman in were, The Hunting Party 1971, Bite the Bullet 1975, and March or Die 1977. He made some other more well know films, but those just stuck with me for some reason.
    Once again thank you much for the re-education…

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Funk:

      You’re most welcome!

      Hackman has the gritty, gruff, every man attitude down pat.

      I first noticed him as a bad guy/bomber in an early episode of ‘I Spy’ and I’ve kept my eye on him ever since.

      Hackman is good in anything. Though some of his best work was in ‘The Gypsy Moths’, The French Connection’, ‘Scarecrow’ opposite a young Al Pacino. And ‘Night Moves’. Where he plays a Marlowe like private eye on a case that doesn’t end well.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Dave:

      Like fine wine, this film gets better with age and the number of times it is seen. The cinematography in and around the boroughs is superlative throughout. Made more exceptional, I believe by the incredibly cold, crappy winter Friedkin wisely used to his advantage.

      You can’t get much grittier and New York than that.

  9. Awesome review as always, Jack! Between your review and the great piece over at Fogs Movie Reviews, it is clear that I need to see this sooner rather than later. Sounds like it would have made an excellent entry in my latest 50 movies project.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Eric!

      Thanks for the props and comments.

      Fogs did an excellent job diving into the nuts, bolts and minutiae of this Classic. While I had to pace myself to get the action down and not get too wound up in the chase scene.

      Definitely worth a place at the table of your 50 movie project!

  10. A great film and deffo a classic but wonder what about The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), by John Fowles that was made into a film any thoughts on that? with Meryl Streep/Jeremy Irons and Austen actor Hilton McRae screenplay written by none other than the great Harold Pinter who also was an Austen actor. As I am writing an essay for my Jane Austen Studies course on Fowles The Collector and his love for Jane Austen.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Tyler!

      It’s always a treat to have you add to the discussion.

      The ending of ‘The French Connection’ is why the film is so endearing. Its complete lack of a wrapped up, happy, tied up in a pretty, neat bow finale makes it all the more unique and memorable.

      The silhouetted shot of Charnier fleeing away doesn’t hurt, either. Very reminiscent of the sewer chase scenes in ‘The Third Man’.

      Friedkin pushed all the right buttons and hit all the right notes on this one!

  11. Truly, a classic of action and police movies in every sense. However, I liked the sequel even more! Frankenheimer’s style is classy. I usually agree with Ted almost down to detail, but not on this one. It’s totally gripping in a more character-driven way than the first part.

    Hackman’s acting after Popeye Doyle has been captured and made a drug addict in a broken-down Marseille hotel is stellar. The old lady who steals his watch is so creepy and memorable. The whole fish-out-of-water with Popeye in Marseille works great. In fact, when he arrives they are carving open fish to search for drugs at the police precinct. Popeye asking for “Bourbon” and the barman not getting it. The antagonism to his French partner. And if you want action, Doyle chasing Charnier on foot by road while Charnier is on a boat has plenty of suspense.

    The sequel to French Connection is a great movie too in my opinion. Only different. It’s has more character study of Doyle. It gets close and focuses more on what’s going on inside him. That’s the sequel’s strength.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Marcus!

      Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      You do raise some interesting points.

      ‘French Connection II’ has several memorable defining moments and scenes. The ‘Bourbon’ scene is good, but I prefer the scene where Popeye has gone through Cold Turkey, is drying out and spends five or six minutes expressing his desire for a Hershey Bar. And describing in detail why American Milk chocolate is far superior to its distant, semi sweet french cousins.

      Also the scene where Popeye seeks redemption by assisting in a drug bust. And grabbing a few glassine bags of heroin when other cops’ backs are turned. Those two scenes do more to define Popeye’s character at the time than anything others could have though of.

      Kudos to Frankenheimer for having the wisdom and courage to keep them off the cutting room floor.

      1. Yes, I agree. The Cold Turkey scenes are the dramatic highlight. The way Hackman pleads and curses during withdrawal is so convincing a performance. I know he won the Oscar for the first movie, but he doesn’t rest on his Oscar laurels and just cash-in for the sequel. He really pushes his acting up a notch.

        I also like the fact Frankenheimer used real French actors known from French cop movies rather than casting other Hollywood stars. “French Connection II” has the French actors act as they do in say one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime capers. It just feels right, rather than having them adopt Hollywood acting styles.

        It may just be a question of expectation, as some other have said. As long as you don’t expect the same style again, you can give the sequel a chance to stand on its own.

        1. jackdeth72

          Hey, Marcus:

          You are quite right about Frankenheimer casting actual Frenchmen speaking their native tongue. The film would not have worked nearly so well with actors speaking English with french accents.

          Another film where that works well, but in fewer scenes is John Irvin’s ‘The Dogs of War’. Especially when Shannon’s weapons connection is smuggling their Uzis in the bottoms of re-welded 55 gallon drums of oil.

          Without subtitles, the language spoken by the Customs officials is foreign and adds greatly to the tension.

          At first glance, Frankenheimer did well with ‘French Connection II’, but if you sit back and let the story and Hackman’s superlative acting take hold. You’ll be just rewarded.

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