The French Connection (1971) / Thriller-Action

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, sexuality, drug content, nudity, and language
Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Bill Hickman, Arlene Farber
Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman (based on the book, "The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy", by Robin Moore)
Review published November 21, 2006

In the 1960s and early 1970s, large amounts of heroin had been trafficked into the United States from France, who refined opium obtained from Turkey into the addictive, potentially deadly drug. U,S, author Robin Moore wrote a non-fiction book about the subject, which was subsequently used as the basis for the fictionalized film version, based on real-life practices of the illegal narcotics smuggling trade in New York City. The adaptation was a smashing success in every respect, performing very well at the box office for its exciting thriller elements, while its writing, directing, editing and cinematography would earn it eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, a first for an R-rated film (although 1969's X-rated Best Picture winner, Midnight Cowboy, had been re-rated to an R in 1971).

The dual-pronged storyline starts in Marseilles, France, as well as in New York City. Rey (Moon Over Parador, 1492: Conquest of Paradise) stars as a French criminal named Alain Charnier, who is heavily involved in the smuggling of heroin out of France to the U.S., while posing as a shipping exec. We then shift to the streets of NYC to meet police detectives Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman, Bonnie and Clyde) and his partner Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Scheider, Jaws), who stumble upon some suspicious activity that merits investigating involving the owner of a diner and his possible dealings with a known underworld criminal, and the possible connection they both have with the rumors that are circulating of a large shipment of heroin that is supposed to be flooding the streets soon.

The French Connection is heralded as one of the greatest thrillers ever made, and certainly ranks among the very best when it comes to films about cops and criminals, regardless of the subject matter. It's a gritty, viscerally engaging crime drama with a very good eye for the vernacular of the street, with the main players often changing the dialogue to match the phrases and slang they heard when on the beat with real-life police detectives. Friedkin (The Guardian, Rules of Engagement) deftly absorbs us into the story, taking his time in letting things unravel, building up scenes slowly until the pedal-to-the-metal finale that is the culmination of every small piece of character development and intricate plotting that comes before.

Perhaps the most memorable scene of the film comes during the exciting climax where Doyle is chasing a subway train containing his would-be assassin through the busy streets of New York City. Often referred to as the greatest car chase scene of all time, this scene crackles with nail-biting suspense, perfect editing, and a sense of unpredictability that makes it a truly remarkable sequence of great action. The locale work is woven in seamlessly with the indoors dialogue-heavy scenes, shot in near-documentary style, using handheld cameras, many times without permits, to give the maximum amount of realness to a standard action vehicle.

Unlike most action-thrillers made today, The French Connection remains a vibrant and unsettling film precisely because it never dumbs down its story, characters, or plot for easy consumption. It always stays true to the characters and the nature of how things generally play out in the real world, with a brilliant epilogue that gives the entire film an overall sense of the bleakness of the cold, uncaring world of drugs and crime.

-- Followed by The French Connection II (1975) and a made-for-TV movie, Popeye Doyle (1976).

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo