Tough narcotics’ cop Jimmy (Popeye) Doyle and his partner Buddy Russo are on the trail of French drug lord Alain Charnier who is about to sell a large amount of heroine to small time mobster Sal Boca. The French Connection shows the complex world of surveillance that Popeye and Russo engage in with the rest of the police force and federal agents against the criminal class of New York City. Based on a non-fiction novel and a real case from the early 1960s, the movie relates the gritty subterfuge all parties play in order to get to their ends. Will the bad cops catch the elegant drug lords?
The French Connection is now a classic film with a well-known car chase. It was recommended to me by one of my university’s video librarian because of that. Let’s cover the car chase first and then focus on the rest of the film. Popeye “borrows” a brown Chevelle to pursue Charnier’s lieutenant Pierre Nicoli after the French mobster failed to assassinate the police officer. Popeye’s Chevelle chases a Brooklyn elevated train across the city.
Much of the scene was improvised as director William Friedkin did not plant all of the hurdles around the Popeye’s Chevelle. It’s a difficult chase as the action is indirect. The scene is built as a parallel edited sequence where the director switches from Popeye to Nicoli. However, Nicoli was not even aware that he was being pursued by Popeye and had his own misgivings inside the train. Of course, the two sequences eventually join in one climatic confrontation between the two opponents. The use of a parallel storytelling for a car chase was probably a new trick in 1971. It still looks fresh in 2016.
Popeye is unlikable. He’s a racist grunt who abuses his power. Friedkin who worked closely with the real Popeye in this film lacked enough distance to avoid making his bad cop a cool caricature of every bad dedicated and rule-bending cop we’ve ever seen. There’s a chance that Popeye has been used by other cheesy pulp and comic writers ever since as the archetype of that kind of cop. It only inflated the original Popeye’s ego who by the way, does star in the film as Doyle’s boss.
One complaint that I have is the visual effect used for the blood during shot outs. It looks like thick pink ketchup. The French Connection is a great movie if you know what to look for. It relies on much visual storytelling that details police surveillance procedures. If you do not know what you are looking for, then much of the information contained might seem irrelevant. But tune on the commentaries with Friedkin, Gene Hackman, and Roy Scheider and many layers of unknown greatness will suddenly appear. The mundane will become intriguing and worth watching again.