When the “The French Connection” came out in 1971 I was a high school freshman. My home room teacher was trying to come up with a class trip that would be less boring than the usual trip to a museum. So, he took the class to a Manhattan theater to see this film. I would say that was the only successful school trip during my four years there.
The movie is shot in the gritty and sometimes annoying cinema verité style that was popular at the time and the soundtrack is full of weird and fairly arbitrary sounds and music meant to add a disorienting sensation to the movie. And the New York City streets and low life environs that make up a good chunk of the geography of the film are an ugly and depressing scene. But the movie succeeds on its own terms. It is the story of Popeye Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) a New York City Police detective who works undercover with his partner Buddy Russo (played by Roy Scheider) to try to stem the flow of heroin into the city. Popeye is a cowboy who will use violence and intimidation to find out where the low-level drug dealers are getting their heroin from. And his recklessness in capturing the bad guys has led to the death of a fellow cop at some time in the past.
Based on the info of an informant Popeye learns that a huge shipment of heroin is coming into the country from France. The mastermind behind the deal is a Frenchman named Alain Charnier who is accompanied by his hitman Pierre Nicoli. They are arranging to sell the drugs to a small time Brooklyn gangster named Sal Boca who along with his young wife Angie run a sandwich shop and drug dealership. In the movie Popeye and Buddy discover Sal’s part in the drug deal completely at random. They were in the Copacabana after work for a drink when Popeye notices a number of mob-connected drug dealers socializing with a young couple that neither of the detectives recognize. On a hunch they follow the couple and see them change cars and appearance before assuming the part of small business owners in Brooklyn. After checking their police records and observing Sal enter the building of a known drug financier named Joel Weinstock, Popeye becomes convinced that Sal is part of the heroin deal and asks his boss to request wire taps for Sal’s home and business.
The two Frenchmen reach New York and Popeye and Buddy, assisted by some federal agents, follow Sal and identify his contacts. But Charnier is aware of the surveillance and plays a game of cat and mouse with Popeye, in one case outwitting him in a game of follow the leader on a subway car. But the lack of results frustrates the police hierarchy and the assignment is cancelled with Popeye and Buddy sent back to the street work they usually do. But Charnier’s hitman Pierre Nicoli is unhappy with Popeye knowing so much about the plan and he tells his boss that he will take care of the detective.
In the next scene Popeye is walking home to his apartment in the Marlborough Housing Project off 86th Street in south Brooklyn when a rifle shot strikes a nearby woman wheeling a baby carriage. After Popeye avoids another half-dozen rounds, he goes up to the roof to find the sniper. He finds the rifle but Nicoli has fled and looking down Popeye sees the man fleeing the area. He chases Nicoli to the elevated subway station of the B train and sees the killer escape on a train. Popeye flags down a motorist and commandeers his car. What follows is one of the greatest car chase scenes in movie history. The elevated train line Straddles and constricts 86th Street running beneath it. And this narrowness and the congestion of the traffic along this busy road makes the high-speed chase that Popeye attempts essentially suicidal. He’s chasing an overhead train on a crowded road by weaving in and out of the oncoming lane while traveling at what’s supposed to be sixty miles an hour. Suffice it to say the unlucky motorist wouldn’t be getting much of his car back at the end of Popeye’s race.
Meanwhile Nicoli is commandeering the train and preventing it from stopping at the local stations. In the commission of this plan he shoots an NYPD officer and the train conductor and gives the subway motorman a heart attack which leads to the train crashing into the back of another train on the same track. Staggering out of the wreck Nicoli tries to leave the elevated station but Popeye has managed to reach the station ahead of him and when Nicoli tries to run Popeye shoots him in the back and guards his body until the police arrive.
After the killings committed by Nicoli, the investigation is relaunched and Popeye and Buddy are in charge again. They discover the drugs hidden in a car planted for the exchange and once the deal takes place, they spring their trap. A small army of police surround the deserted building on Ward Island where the drug dealers are holed up. Sal is killed in the gun battle but the rest of the New York gang and the drugs are captured by the police. Now Popeye and Buddy go after Charnier. Popeye tells Buddy that Charnier is in the far end of the building. Popeye walks straight toward the room but when a figure appears in the doorway Popeye cuts him down with five shots from his revolver. But when Buddy goes over to the body it’s the federal agent that Popeye disliked the most. Popeye ignores the gravity of what he’s just done and says he knows Charnier is in the room and charges in. We hear a shot ring out and the scene ends.
Text on the screen tells us that only a couple of criminals served time and even that wasn’t for more than a few years. Doyle and Russo were transferred out of the narcotics division and reassigned. Charnier was never caught and was believed to be back in France.
As noted above this movie suffers from being a product of early nineteen seventies film-making. New York City at that time period was a pretty gritty place. At best, Popeye Doyle is a flawed hero but more accurately he is an anti-hero. But his cowboy approach to police work is fast-paced and riveting. Hackman and Scheider have a good chemistry as cop buddies. And without a doubt, the chase scene is a must-see experience. On a personal note I grew up in the area where Popeye Doyle lived and where the chase scene took place. I can attest that only a heavily armed individual with a death wish could live in the Marlboro Projects back in the 1970s with no fear for life or limb. And if someone tried to drive down 86th Street in the way represented by the movie’s chase scene the body count would have been truly noteworthy.
I recommend the movie to all fans of action movies and crime dramas.