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FRENCH CONNECTION, THE (director: William Friedkin; screenwriters: from the book by Robin Moore/Ernest Tidyman; cinematographer: Owen Roizman; editor: Jerry Greenberg; music: Don Ellis; cast: Gene Hackman (Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Roy Scheider (Buddy Russo), Tony Lo Bianco (Sal Boca), Arlene Faber (Angie Boca), Marcel Bozzufi (Pierre Nicoli), Eddie Egan (Walter Simonson), Patrick McDermott (Chemist), Harold Gary (Joel Weinstock), Frédéric de Pasquale (Henri Devereaux), Bill Hickman (Mulder), Ben Marino(Lou Boca); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Phil D’Antoni; 20th Century Fox; 1971)
“Fast-paced urban crime thriller that catches the authentic flavor of the NYC locations.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

William Friedkin’s (“The Exorcist”/”Sorcerer”) action flick earned five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor for Gene Hackman. It’s based on the book by Robin Moore and screenplay by Ernest Tidyman. The French Connection is an exciting, smart-assed, fast-paced urban crime thriller that catches the authentic flavor of the NYC locations (from the Lower East Side’s Ratner’s to a Harlem bar frequented by junkies to a first-rate French restaurant in midtown) and is heavy on detailing police procedures and street-level busts. It was shot with lots of handheld cameras during the many notable chase scenes and followed along the lines of a faux-documentary, gunning for some kind of gritty realism. After thirty years it holds its own style-wise but loses points for its crowd-pleasing and highly-praised centerpiece elevated-railway chase in Brooklyn, which now seems hardly that spectacular as first thought (at least to me in my umpteenth viewing and after so many other cop-chase films improved on the original). Much of the film noir characteristics of the central character, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), seem lacking in justification for his raison d’etre, as his brutish actions seem to come about solely to establish himself as the viewer’s lovable vigilante hero despite his bigotry. Friedkin’s running quote has the porkpie hat attired Popeye tell an assortment of characters: “Ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?”

It’s slick filmmaking that provides for solid entertainment.

Warning: spoiler to follow in next two paragraphs.

Popeye and Buddy Russo are partners on the narc squad, who lead their uptown Manhattan precinct in drug busts but all of small-time dealers and addicts. On a hunch Popeye convinces his partner that they should stakeout petty criminal Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), who they bumped into by accident in a nightclub. Boca plays the role of a big-shot to a circle of shady friends in the nightclub gathering, but suspiciously lives in high-style while merely owning a candy store taking in a small income. The suspicions they have about him pay off, as Sal is tailed to the apartment of Joel Weinstock–a suspected big-time drug dealer who was never apprehended.

Word on the street gets out that there’s a big shipment of heroin coming in from Marseilles, as Popeye and Buddy through their investigation (wiretap and 24-hour tail) soon find out that behind that shipment is the drug king Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). He has arrived personally in NYC with his dangerous underling Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzufi) to consummate the deal of 60 kilos of heroin with Boca, who is representing money-man Weinstock and is making his first big drug deal. Much of the action has Popeye trying to follow Charnier, who is tagged by the cops with the nickname Frog Number One. But Charnier spots Popeye and gives him the slip. Feeling that Popeye is an obstacle to the deal going down, Pierre then takes a rifle shot at Popeye from the roof of the project where he resides but instead hits a woman passer-by. That leads to the previously mentioned elevator-railroad chase scene that ends with the French hit man killed by Popeye. The narc cops following Boca discover the “dirty car,” and in the final scene the drug rings making the exchange are surrounded in a deserted garbage dump by the cops, and they are either captured or killed with only the elusive Charnier escaping. Popeye in the raid mistakenly kills a colleague believing him to be Charnier. The film cynically ends with Popeye and Buddy reassigned from the narc squad and scorned by their fellow cops, and all the busts result in little jail time for those apprehended.

The film is based on the true experience of Eddie Egan, one of the city’s most decorated cops. Egan has a role in the film as Popeye’s boss. The French Connection captures more the decaying milieu of a rapidly changing NYC that is inundated by crime than it tells a fresh story or gets into the heads of any of the main characters. But it does so with such a pizazz and a bang, that it has become a first-rate commercial film and an established classic that has aged rather well.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”