Let’s Talk About… ‘The French Connection’ (1971)

Film #33 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies.

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

From our perspective in 2018, it would be easy to overlook the cinematic importance of a film like The French Connection. As film fans, most of us who frequent this site understand that it’s a classic. We know we’re supposed to like it on some level (a problem in and of itself), or at the very least we know that we should be aware of things about it which are noteworthy or worthy of appreciation. Without any context, though, the film might seem ordinary or elements of it run-of-the-mill to someone approaching it with modern sensibilities. The French Connection deploys just about every trope found in the modern “Buddy Cop” genre. The plot centers around two polar opposite cops (the slightly unhinged and singularly driven Popeye Doyle [played brilliantly by Gene Hackman] and his more grounded, even-tempered partner, Cloudy Russo [played by Roy Scheider]), a suave, sophisticated foreign villain (played by Fernando Rey) who is always one step ahead of his pursuers, and a large-scale, waterfront drug deal. There’s a ball-busting captain (played ex-cop Eddie Egan instead of a professional actor), a spectacular car chase, an annoying FBI agent, a foot chase, nudity, a scene where the two cops go into a bar and (illegally) shake down the patrons, a stakeout, a cold and calculating henchman, and a climactic shootout.

Now, I can talk to you about the cinematography. I can talk to you about the direction and the acting. I can tell you about why the car chase is significant – even though, as my colleague Sailor Monsoon put it, “It’s a great car chase, but there have been better ones over the years.” But I’d rather talk to you about the way The French Connection preserves the world it depicts, and why I think that’s interesting. Besides, the chances are better than average that, if you’re reading a review of this movie, you already know it’s made well.

By 1980, crime in New York City had more than doubled from where it was in 1965. The murder rate had nearly tripled. Robberies quadrupled. Heroin and cocaine were sold in open air markets, people often forming lines to score as though they were lining up for a movie. Unemployment in the city was at a post World War II high, and, by 1980, the city’s population had shrunk by nearly a million people.

New York City was fucked.

To visit today, you’d never guess at its recent dark history. Times Square, once the domain of pimps and prostitutes, is now a shiny tourist trap with shops selling five dollar I♥NY shirts on every corner and not a pimp or prostitute in sight. Fortunately, for those of us who never got to see Gotham in all its 1970s dystopian glory, it is preserved in movies like The French Connection for all of us to observe and enjoy from the comfort of our La-Z-Boys (minus the alleyway blowjobs and herpes).

Though hundreds of examples exist, William Friedkin’s The French Connection is one of the better known time capsules to capture the spirit of this era of urban decay, rising crime, and social rot at the core of the Big Apple and other major American cities. Friedkin turns his camera on the ruined buildings and alleyway trash fires with the same care and fascination as earlier filmmakers did with the lavish sets of the grand musicals of the 1940s. He just captures it and puts it up on the screen. All of it. The crime and the racism and the police brutality. The beaten down and the beaters. The ordinary and the extraordinary. No makeup. No melodrama. Friedkin isn’t interested in gussying up the world to make it more glamorous for the audience. He’s not interested in making judgments. He presents the people who populate this world as they are. These people aren’t looking for a brighter future – they’re just trying to numb themselves against the realities of the present. They’re trying to get what they can get while they can get it. And they often fail. Or go to jail. Or get ground down beneath the tank tracks of a bloated, staggering, overreaching system.

All of this can seem pretty nihilistic when taken in large doses, but as a casual observer so far removed from the grim realities of life in the postwar era, I can’t help but find the matter-of-fact way Friedkin presents his urban hellscape totally captivating. It’s very nearly an example of a real, modern dystopia. In New York City. In the American Century.

You can watch The French Connection for its acting. You can watch it for its cinematography. For its direction. For the way the camera allows its characters to breathe their first breaths, to grow in the quiet moments between dialogue and action, and become fully realized people. You can watch for the car chase and the violence and the nudity. You can watch it for all of these reasons. But if you watch it without considering how different their world is from yours, how dangerous and unfair and isolating and yet how rich and compelling and utterly real it is, you’ll miss half the story.