After a jarring beginning with piercing music over the opening credits, the story begins in Marseilles which makes sense. After all, this is the French connection.
In Marseille we see a man we don’t know shot in the face by another man we don’t know.
Meanwhile in New York, two cops we don’t know chase down a low level drug dealer we don’t know for information we don’t understand.
Back in France we see another man we don’t know talk to another man we don’t know about a dock and a pier.
Those two New York cops we still don’t know go in to a bar and eye a group of people at a table we don’t know.
I have no idea what’s going on. I’m OD’ing on intrigue!
Frankly, I was a little confused at first. But as the first act moves to the second the hook is set and I was reeled in. I still had no idea what was going on but I was completely captivated to find out.
To summarize, The French Connection (based on the novel by Robin Moore) is about two NYPD narcotic detectives, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle* (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) who discover there is going to be a major shipment of heroin coming into New York and aim to bust the drug ring.
It sounds simple, and it is, but what makes this an Academy Award-winning best picture is how the story is told, how interesting the characters are and the fantastic performance from Gene Hackman.
We’re officially in a new era of best picture acting. Steiger and Poitier in In the Heat of the Night. Voight and Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. Scott and Malden in Patton. Now Hackman and Scheider in The French Connection.
Sure, there have been great performances before and even some stellar duos that outdo these. But those were anomalies. They paved the way for naturalistic, even method acting to become more the norm. They talk like people talk. Walk like people walk. React like people react. They’re not ACTING!! They’re, ya know, acting and that kind of stuff.
There is such a gritty and raw realism in this film. It’s not pretty. In fact it’s dirty, dingy and rundown. But beyond that our “heroes” are dirty, dingy and rundown too.
They drop F-bombs (the first ever in a best picture winner). Doyle casually spouts a few racial epithets. Russo pantomimes a jerking hand motion. The two of them engage in some garden variety police brutality. They’re not exactly cut from the same high-moral cloth as Sir Thomas More (A Man for All Seasons). Hell, they’re not even cut from the same low-moral cloth as Willie Stark (All the King’s Men).
Popeye Doyle was an anti-hero the likes of which had never before been seen in a best picture winner.
There have been other men like Terry Malloy (On the Waterfront), T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Rick Blaine (Casablanca) and even Chief Bill Gillespie (In the Heat of the Night) who didn’t possess the traditional heroic qualities of a Father Chuck O’Malley (Going My Way), Philip Schuyler Green (Gentlemen’s Agreement) or Judah Ben-Hur.
But Popeye Doyle isn’t just a flawed man trying to the right thing. Doyle is an obsessive, bigoted and womanizing alcoholic… trying to do the right thing. But not even necessarily the right way.
He’s a bull-headed detective. In some ways Popeye Doyle was really the forerunner of all the cliché movie cops we’ve seen over the last 45 years.
“Dammit Detective O’Stubborn! This isn’t your own personal war!” – Police Captain McUlcer (3 Days from Retirement 2: I’m Getting Too Old for This)
But he refuses the give up and will stop at nothing to get his man. (Damn, even that sounds super cliché!)
There’s an amazing scene where Doyle follows the big baddie Alain Charnier, aka “Frog One” (Fernando Rey) through the streets of New York down into the subway. In the station they do this little dance of getting on and off the train, reading the newspaper, getting a “grape drink.” All the while Charnier is trying casually to lose his tail and Doyle is doing his best not to lose him. It’s brilliant. In the end Frog One gets the better of Doyle.
There are a number of films you could put on the Mt. Rushmore of movie car chase scenes. Bullitt. Ronin. The Bourne [fill in the blank]. But I’m partial to the one in this film.
Doyle frantically commandeers a 1971 Pontiac LeMans to chase a hitman who is trying to escape on the elevated train in Brooklyn.
It’s the perfect car chase. It’s tense. It’s thrilling. It’s unbelievably well-shot. Popeye isn’t watching the road because he’ keeping his eye on the train above him. So he’s narrowly missing mothers pushing baby carriages, sideswiping parked cars and smashing into tons of stuff. But most of all, the car chase advances the story, the character and the setting. It isn’t just a car chase for the sake of a car chase. Others are arguably better. But this one is flawless.
I won’t spoil anything but the ending is so completely unlike any of the best picture winners so far. I have a feeling the best picture winners of the 70s are about to reflect a more cynical and bleak worldview. We’ll see. If the movies are all this good I won’t mind.
The Academy certainly didn’t mind. The French Connection beat out The Last Picture Show, A Clockwork Orange and (one of my all-time favorite films) Fiddler on the Roof. It received eight nominations and took home five Oscars including picture, director (William Friedkin), adapted screenplay and a best actor award for Hackman.
But the man of the night was Charlie Chaplin. Yes, THE Charlie Chaplin.
For the previous 20 years he had been living in self-imposed exile in Switzerland. But he returned to the United States to accept an honorary Oscar for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”.
When he was introduced he received a twelve-minute standing ovation. Twelve straight minutes! It’s by far the longest standing ovation in Academy Awards history.
*Doyle is based on a real-life New York City police detective Eddie Egan. The character was called “Popeye” because that was Egan’s nickname.