The French Connection (1971) is the most essential police-driven action thriller of the last 40 years. The new Blu-ray disc release is a reminder of how many crime movies have imitated director William Friedkin’s classic. And lately, most are imitations of imitations.
Gene Hackman, who stared as NYPD narcotics detective “Popeye” Doyle, helped create an unforgettable character, especially for younger filmmakers who continue to raid him for ideas. Wearing his trademark stingy brim hat, Popeye was Archie Bunker with a license to kill, a bigot with a bit mouth and a badge. He could hilarious. He was willing to do whatever it took, even posing as a bell-ringing Santa Claus to disguise his street corner surveillance. Popeye was a bad cop, administering brutal back-alley beatings and even killing criminals by shooting them in the back. Duty or abstractions of justice seemed to motivate him less than cold hatred.
New York City brooded over The French Connection like a decomposing dinosaur, mammoth and falling to pieces. There were many heart-pounding foot chases through its crowded wintry streets plus the most awesome (and emulated) car chase ever. Driving a sedan commandeered from a hapless citizen, Popeye sideswiped buildings and dodged oncoming traffic in pursuit of a runaway commuter train.
The French Connection was a film willing to stare reality in the eye. Most of Popeye’s work consisted of long stints in the cold, warming himself with takeout coffee as he kept tabs on the well-healed drug lords he despised as much for their wealth and ethnicity as for the poison they sold.
The success of The French Connection bred a Roman-numbered sequel, French Connection II (1975), also out on Blu-ray. The difference between the two movies measures the distance between a great film and a good one. It’s no surprise that the original was better, but it wasn’t inevitable that II would be as good as sit was. The screenplay the second time out was a Hollywood contrivance, thrilling even as it sidestepped reality. Popeye was an ugly American abroad, working with (and against) the French police as he tracks the drug lord that got away last time. Although Popeye is pushed toward caricature, credit Hackman for excellent acting from a diminished script and replacement director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) for moving the action along imaginatively. Marseilles is almost as much a character as a setting, a thin haze of Arabic pop music draped over the serpentine alleyways as Popeye chases his quarry.