The French Connection (1971)

William Friedkin’s gritty police drama portrays two tough New York City cops trying to intercept a huge heroin shipment coming from France. An interesting contrast is established between ‘Popeye’ Doyle, a short-tempered alcoholic bigot who is nevertheless a hard-working and dedicated police officer, and his nemesis Alain Charnier, a suave and urbane gentleman who is nevertheless a criminal and one of the largest drug suppliers of pure heroin to North America.During the surveillance and eventual bust, Friedkin provides one of the most gripping and memorable car chase sequences ever filmed.

The French Connection is an adaptation of Robin Moore’s book of the same name which dealt with the true story of NYPD detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, the cops who broke up a notorious drug operation and confiscated thirty-two million pounds worth of heroin. The two of them agreed to serve as technical advisors for the movie, while the screenplay itself, penned by Ernest Tidyman, experienced changes in the course of filming in favor of phrases suggested by Egan and Grosso, whose rich experience on the force contributed to the dominating sense of realism. Moreover, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider spent a month patrolling with Egan so they could get closer to the characters they were supposed to portray. Unbelievably fast-paced, beautifully directed and technically ahead of its time, The French Connection etched into our minds and hearts with ease as one of the most exciting films of the period.

Director Friedkin brought his opinionated filmmaking to The French Connection, Friedkin did not want to work with any of the old time cameramen who still held sway in Hollywood.  He found Owen Roizman, who had only done commercials before.  He told him he wanted to shoot documentary style, no lights, or big equipment trucks, and Roizman said he loved to shoot that way.   Roizman was nominated for an Oscar for his first film.

 The  famous chase sequence in the movie  was shot over the course of five weeks, with police clearing stretches of just five blocks at a time. Nonetheless, the two-car crash that occurs partway through the chase (above) was unplanned, caused by an unwitting Brooklyn driver on his way to work who crossed onto the set and into the path of Popeye’s Pontiac. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt.

Many pieces of music are  involved in the film, including source music heard in the street locations. The Music editor Ken Wannberg would go on to become a noted composer in his own right.

In 2014, Time Out listed The French Connection as the 31st best action film of all time, according to a poll of several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors.[Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film 4 out of 4 stars and ranked it as one of the best films of 1971.Roger Greenspun of The New York Times said of the film, “the ads say that the time is just right for an out-and-out thriller like this, and I guess that you are supposed to think that a good old kind of movie has none too soon come around again. But The French Connection … is in fact a very good new kind of movie, and that in spite of its being composed of such ancient material as cops and crooks, with thrills and chases, and lots of shoot-’em-up.” John Simon in a positive review of The French Connection wrote “Friedkin has used New York locations better than anyone to day,” “The performances are all good”, and “Owen Roizman’s cinematography, grainy and grimy, is a brilliant rendering of urban blight.”

The film was a huge hit, making over $26 million in rentals, won Oscars and turned Friedkin, into a famously director.  It was the third highest grossing film of 1972 and won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Editing and Writing, with nominations for supporting actor and cinematography.

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