French New Wave Meets NYC Streets: How “The French Connection” Revolutionized Police Films

Before Dirty Harry and The French Connection, movie cops amounted to little more than sheriffs in civvies, white hat versus black hat with a gumball motor instead of a horse. Growing public unease with the US judicial system soon put paid to that.
The French Connection (1971)

Here’s grit in your eye: Simon Crook on how William Friedkin’s celebrated cop shocker reshaped a genre and created an anti-hero

by Simon Crook

In 1971, the cop movie changed for the uglier and the better. Thrown together, the two characters responsible for this spiky mutation—Popeye and Harry—sound like a renegade puppet outfit from CITV and about as tough as fish fingers. Yet Mr. Doyle (Popeye) and Mr. Callahan (Harry) still remain the base photofit for that corny but still naggingly effective genre chestnut: the rebel cop who doesn’t play by the rules.

Before Dirty Harry and The French Connection, movie cops amounted to little more than sheriffs in civvies, white hat versus black hat with a gumball motor instead of a horse. Growing public unease with the US judicial system soon put paid to that. With crime soaring, offenders were somehow being kidgloved with increasing leniency. Connection and Harry were quick to tap in. Hip to the new cynicism, their response was brutally simple: to take the law into their own gunhands.

Similar profiles then, but stylistically? Different precincts. Both are exceptional movies; but only one can lay claim to laying out a legacy. It’s all in the grit. From The Sweeney through to CSI, it all comes back to The Connection.

The events are based, as the trailer goes, “On An Incredible True Story”. Well, sort of. In October 1961, two unlikeable but dedicated New York cops, Eddie “Popeye” Egan and Sonny “Cloudy” Grosso, broke into a crime ring that resulted in the largest drug haul ever seen—more than $32 million in uncut heroin. Director William Friedkin would be the first to admit that his version plays fast and loose with the facts—but then what bumpkin ever let facts get in the way of a good movie? Friedkin was after a different kind of truth: authenticity.

A precocious talent who’d risen through the TV ranks, Friedkin was already a respected documentary filmmaker—and The French Connection, to him, looked like a documentary that never happened. This bid for realism informs everything in the film: look, location, camerawork, lighting, mood, performance, even the smack (the heroin is real heroin, on loan from the NYPD). Exorcist lore celebrates all manner of auteur shit-fits that earned Friedkin his enfant terrible rep, so you may be surprised to hear that during Connection‘s shoot, the phrase that kept popping up from all involved was “great fun”. And not one gun to an actor’s head. Fun? Let’s have some…

A typical day: told that the budget won’t spread to a traffic-jam sequence, Friedkin responds accordingly and, cameraman and cast in tow, nips out to make his own one. The party gets broken up by an NYPD helicopter wondering how two armed police impersonators have caused a two-mile tailback. Friedkin genuinely doesn’t understand what the problem is, and asks to borrow the police helicopter.

If all this sounds like a bunch of little boys hoofing around the city playing cops and robbers, well, here’s some more. The celebrated chase (so influential that the climaxes to both Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins are, essentially, CG remixes) was shot largely on the fly and was a car crash waiting to happen. Guess what? Car crashes happened. Stuntmen in stuntcars missing their marks, civilians on their way to work driving into the chase… And throughout all this, star Gene Hackman doing his own Method driving. Permit? Schmermit.

The point being, every pop, bang and wallop of edgy guerrilla energy crosses from street to screen. Friedkin’s , rough bite of the Big Apple is anti-postcard—the sordid lower East Side and slums of Bed-Stuy lensed in the colour of a cold, steel dustbin. It’s the epitome of American urban grit, a look that’s resurfaced in countless cop shows—the visual gravel reflecting that tough, uncompromising police procedural. And inspired, of all things, by gay Paris.

In order to induce the adrenalised anarchy of the documentary form, Friedkin—with more skill and instinct than any of his contemporaries—called on the spirit of the French New Wave. Specifically, Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim: shoot quick, shoot handheld, shoot anywhere (the title is, of course, a deliberate pun—if Friedkin were any more of a Francophile, he’d be an onion).

Friedkin’s maverick tendencies were just as evident during preproduction, most notably in his dealings with his leading man. Hackman’s pitbull turn is one of cinema’s most compelling depictions of obsession but, truth be told, the Stanislavski Method Man initially struggled. “Where’s his weak side? His compassionate side?” Hackman would protest, struggling to widen the dimensions of his character’s methods. “There isn’t any,” Friedkin would reply. “He’s a monster.” Then, to prove his point, he hired some monsters: Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso—the real Popeye and Cloudy—to show his stars the ropes. By the time they finished their month of night patrols, drug busts and doughnuts, Hackman and co-star Roy Schneider were making their own (illicit) arrests. And, having witnessed Eddie’s shocking fist-and-threat tactics at first hand, Hackman soon channelled the monster, to Oscar-winning effect.

Popeye’s dogged pursuit is so single-minded he ends the film shooting at shadows. A monster? Maybe. But it’s an obsession shared: watching his extraordinary rendering, it’s us who ends up popeyed. Perhaps this explains how a womanising, racist, control-freak dipso who shoots bad guys in the back and cops in the head gets nominated the American Film Institute’s 44th greatest movie hero. Shouldn’t that be anti-hero?

Yet as popular as Doyle is, for most this is simply the movie with that car chase. Perhaps the chase is too good—it hogs the limelight. There are better scenes. As always, it’s the quiet ones you have to look out for. Want a lesson in how to make a tedious four-hour stretch of police procedure throb like a 160-second epic? Look no further than the garage skit. Popeye and his partner have impounded a car, convinced there are drugs stashed inside. So they strip it -to the skeleton. Narratively it’s a pivotal point, but there’s a lot more going on than just plot. In fact, it plays like an interrogation, the car literally being broken down, piece by piece, bleeding oil. To Popeye, the car represents the adversary he can’t get his hands on—so he rips it to pieces. The scene jags out of an audacious series of jump-cuts, building up a rhythm of increasing desperation. It nails Popeye’s blind obsession, his opponent’s cunning, and grips like King Kong’s fist. The detail, the dirt, the authenticity: it’s visionary stuff, lifting lowly genre material into a legitimate artform. It’s the true spirit of The French Connection.

Oh, and by the way: Popeye is so-called because he always had an eye open for a criminal suspect—as opposed to a perverse fondness for spinach. Glad we got that one cleared up…

Empire, June 2006; pp. 148-149



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