William Friedkin’s The French Connection is a lean, uncompromising example of filmmaking without a single gram of fat on its bones. Nothing unnecessary to telling the story is on screen, allowing Friedkin to tell a fairly complex story within a surprisingly compact running time of 104 minutes. Gene Hackman’s balls-out performance as unconventional and obsessive narcotics cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle elevates what was already a superior film to the level of a classic.
The film tracks the importing of a load of heroin from Marseilles, in southern France, to New York City. Doyle and his partner, “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider), two narcotics cops on a bit of a cold streak, have noticed that there is actually a scarcity of hard drugs on the streets. There’s a rumor about a big shipment of heroin about to arrive and they suspect Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), an ex-con who runs a small diner but lives expensively, of being involved.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a Frenchman named Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) has conned a popular television star (Frédéric de Pasquale) into helping him smuggle a load of heroin into the United States. Charnier’s enforcer and hit man, Pierre (Marcel Bozzuffi) thinks it’s a bad idea but it’s not his call.
Doyle and Russo’s superior (Eddie Egan, the real-life inspiration for “Popeye” Doyle), is unconvinced by their evidence but eventually agrees to let them pursue it, on one condition. They have to cooperate with a Federal agent named Mulderig (stunt man Bill Hickman, who also helped coordinate the film’s classic chase scene), who openly despises Doyle. The feeling is completely mutual.
Despite its early-seventies setting, very little about The French Connection seems dated. The specific, vivid performances of Hackman and Scheider could easily be transplanted to a film set in 2007. The clothes and music may set a specific time but nothing about the story itself is locked into 1971.
The script also doesn’t weigh the film down with the kind of “character moments” that seem so obligatory today. We know as much about these two cops as we need to – and no more – by watching them do their job within the context of the film. This kind of economy of storytelling seems almost foreign to contemporary films. John Frankenheimer’s follow-up, The French Connection II just four years later, was meant to be more of a “character study” of Popeye Doyle and was far less successful, both artistically and commercially.
This sort of efficient narrative also helps justify the film’s set piece action sequence, where Doyle commandeers a civilian’s car and chases a runaway subway train through the streets of Brooklyn. A lesser film would have a hard time justifying this an over-the-top sequence like this, but by this point in the film, we are sufficiently convinced of the reality of Poppy Doyle that we going along for the ride, literally.
One would be hard-pressed to name a better cop film, from the seventies or any other decade. Not long after The French Connection, action movies began to lose their grip on reality as, instead of trying to match Friedkin’s gritty reality, filmmakers believed their job was just to top his stunt work.