Take a look at Popeye Doyle. He’s got a hunch.
His hunch says that table is wrong, the one in the corner, the guy with the striped shirt and the tie? Those guys he’s with — mobsters. But who is that guy? The last of the big spenders?
Let’s follow him, Popeye says. For fun. Let’s follow him all the way, no matter what.
Cloudy, Popeye’s partner, allows himself to be dragged along in Popeye’s wake, but he’s investigating the wrong guy. He should be taking a hard look at Popeye instead.
I just watched The French Connection again. Man is that a low-down, grimy, spit-stained picture — and I mean that in the most positive way possible. I mean it adoringly.
From the first few shots, you’re in it. There’s no protection for you at all. Not a shred of sanitization. Everything looks like there was just no time, no money, better things to worry about than a smooth pan or a reset for lighting or a permit to race down the city streets at 90 miles an hour chasing an elevated train.
We’ve got things to do, you got me? We’re with Popeye Doyle and nothing’s going to stand in our way.
If you haven’t seen The French Connection, a) get on that right away and b) you probably don’t know what i’m talking about. This is the non plus ultra of cop films. Fuck Training Day and the rest of that crap they’re giving Oscars to today. William Friedkin’s 1971 masterpiece will take you by the throat. It’s a cinema vérité-style picture that does everything it can to shove you right up against the wall. This is no pretty-boy picture with dashing leads and gorgeous scenery. It’s ugly. It’s raw. It hurts.
The story is straightforward and based on actual events. Two narcotics detectives, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) sniff out a big shipment of drugs from France following one of Popeye’s hunches. They try to catch the traffickers — namely the Frenchman Alain Charnier, whom they dub ‘Frog One’ (Fernando Rey), his muscle Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), and Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) — a New York player and the last of the big spenders.
So why is it so compelling?
Because it’s ugly. It’s raw. It hurts. And it’s true. Not in that “based on a true story” bullshit way, which it is as well, but in the “devastating universal truth of art” way. It is a reflection of us, now more than ever.
These days when the news is filled with stories about the NSA listening in on your phone calls and reading your email; when government-employed goons are paid to peer through your clothing every time you want to get on an airplane; when you regularly sign away all rights to your personal information every time you turn on a computer; when drones fly overhead like armed paparazzi — the dirty truth in The French Connection strikes home.
We’re going to follow you all the way, no matter what.
And yeah, maybe we’ll catch a bad guy or two that otherwise might have slipped through, and we’ll book a few lowlifes for picking their feet in Poughkeepsie, but at what cost?
All that comes later though. First we’re on the ground with Popeye and Cloudy, trying to shrug off the Fed who’s riding our ass (Bill Hickman as the miserable prick Bill Mulderig). He’s upset just because the last time Popeye followed a hunch a cop got killed.
In the film, Popeye and Cloudy don’t do anything sexy with ballistics or undercover agents or any of that CSI nonsense. We’re just shaking down sources. We’re sleeping in our cars on stakeouts. We’re standing in the cold, drinking shitty coffee, and freezing our balls off.
Because we’re going to follow you all the way, no matter what. We are relentless and we know we’re right.
Director William Friedkin pulls some swift tricks in The French Connection. Yes, this film looks like it was shot by a surveillance team, but that’s the result of hard work and careful design. The mumbling is on purpose, as are the enveloping shadows, the washed out color, and the ubiquitous grit. That’s not all, though. Within this drearily real aesthetic you’ll catch moments in which directorial mastery focuses attention like Popeye Doyle’s Colt Detective Special: right at the small of your back.
Take, for example, the early scene in the Copacabana where Popeye first locks onto Sal. It’s a raucous scene, with the Three Degrees singing live, clattering dishes, and overlapping conversations. And then, almost so you don’t notice it, you follow Popeye’s stare to absorb as much of Sal as possible. You’re at the table with him. The surrounding racket is only a distraction now. You can barely hear all the noise as Sal waves his money around.
For Popeye, there’s nothing but the target. Nothing but the chase.
And oh, what a chase! Among the pounding, visceral chase scenes in The French Connection — some breathless on foot, some sly in the subways — stands one of the best chase scenes in any film ever. It is a chase scene that I want to force every modern blockbuster director to watch before they begin work on whichever comic book they’re set to gang rape.
It is unlike any chase scene that you have become inured to. It is said that legendary director Howard Hawks challenged Friedkin to make the best chase scene yet, and Friedkin did exactly that. In a sense — a very real sense — the entire film of The French Connection is one extended chase scene. The particular segment we’re talking about now, wherein Popeye Doyle commandeers a ’71 LeMans and tries to keep pace with an elevated train on the BMT West End Line, is a cypher for the entire film. One relentless man, in a shitty car, chasing a flying subway train, no matter what’s in the way.
Again, Friedkin uses sound to do something counterintuitive here. As Doyle throws himself fully into the pursuit — pounding the steering wheel and horn, flooring it the wrong way down busy streets, screaming bloody murder — we hear little of it. The revving of the engine and the cries of the horn do not place us inside the car with Popeye, as the camera often is.
We are down the street, hearing a chase, hearing a train clatter overhead. Maybe safe in our seats, but maybe not. Who knows which way Doyle will swerve in his demand for satisfaction?
Friedkin cuts back and forth between the action in the train and the mayhem on the streets below. When we’re with Popeye, sometimes we’re right beside him, seeing obstacles dart into our path. Other times we’re strapped to the front fender, flying at street level; or we’re a block away tracking the mad shadow of the hell-bent automobile.
This is not a turned-to-11 hash of hyper-quick cuts set to some booming orchestral score to instruct you how to feel. It is pure, throttling need. Popeye swerves to miss a woman with a baby carriage, but if he hadn’t been quick enough, would he have stopped?
No. Nothing stops Popeye Doyle. He will go all the way, no matter what. This is not even the first woman with a baby carriage he’s encountered today — and the other one, I believe she’s dead. Popeye never even checked. Her corpse and orphaned child lie behind him and his quarry runs ahead.
There is much already written about The French Connection and about this chase scene in particular, so I’ll leave this subject here now in favor of saying something new. To do that properly, I’ll need to discuss the end of the film. If you haven’t seen it, I think you ought to watch it before you read on. Not because there’s a twist in the final moments or a surprising reveal or because the mystery is solved by master detective Popeye Doyle in a show of bravado.
You should watch The French Connection first because your emotional experience of the ending is your own to have and digest, not mine to dictate.
During the final reel of The French Connection, Popeye and Cloudy track Charnier to Wards Island, where the deal finally goes down. Alain and Sal hand over the drugs and receive suitcases of cash in return. The pair climbs back into their Lincoln and, victorious, drive over the convex bridge back to the city. Only reaching the top of the rise do they see the phalanx of police cars awaiting them. Popeye waves. The chase is finally over.
But it isn’t. The chase isn’t ever over. Sal and Alain flee back to Wards Island with the cops fast behind. Sal and the rest of the mobsters hide in one building but Alain runs in the other direction. Popeye, of course, follows Frog One. He stalks his prey through the ruins of an industrial building as Cloudy and Bill spread out, in his wake as always.
There is nothing here but destruction. It is grey, pounded, waste. You can taste it, but Popeye doesn’t even notice. He’s so committed to pursuit that nothing deflects his intensity. Not the state of the world he’s charged into, not even shooting Bill Mulderig by mistake — emptying his gun into the man and leaving him dead in the rubble.
Cloudy stops then; he kneels beside the fallen Federal agent and reels with the magnitude of what he has wed himself to. Is he still with his partner as he has been throughout, loyally, from the start?
You remember the start, right? When Cloudy got knifed by a penny-ante dealer and just wanted to go home to bed? Then, as always, it was Popeye who pushed him just a bit farther, just a bit longer, just stick it out to the end.
He has a hunch and he’s got to follow it through.
Now, having just put a colleague on the ground, Popeye does not even pause. He just reloads his weapon and races down the crumbling hallway into the darkness after his man. The screen fades to black and we hear, but do not see, another report of his gun. Just a shot in the dark.
End titles reveal the result of Popeye’s investigation. Sal we’ve seen shot dead, trying to escape. The other major players were arrested but served no time. Only the least-guilty member of the conspiracy — the foolish actor who unwittingly carried the drugs into the country (Frédéric de Pasquale) — went to prison, and him for only 4 years.
Alain Charnier got away entirely. Never caught. Never found.
And so The French Connection is a chase movie that doesn’t end. It is not about the successful arrest of a major international drug smuggler, or the busting of a narcotics ring. It is the story of Popeye Doyle, a good-intentioned man corrupted by relentless pursuit.
While Gene Hackman is absolutely brilliant in this role, this is not a part any man should aspire to play. Yet this is the role that more and more of our national security apparatus finds itself stepping up to assume: looking at the world as nothing but potential targets. Like Popeye, they stroll into the club and do not taste the whiskey, or hear the band, or comfort the injured friend. They seek out the ones who look wrong and chase them to the end, regardless of who gets hurt along the way.
Sure. I’m positive that the NSA and the PRISM program and other initiatives like that catch and stop some criminals. Fifty acts of terror according to Keith Alexander. I’m equally positive that they do so with all the delicacy and consideration of Popeye Doyle.
Remember the last time you had a hunch? A good cop died.
What has your investigation cost us in money, in ruined lives and to what benefit?
You can say that only people with something to hide need to care about privacy, but give me your passwords and I’ll find something you’d rather I didn’t in under an hour. And I’m not a racist, reckless detective with nothing to fill my life but you and your potential criminality. It isn’t my job to read your Tweets and decide whether or not you’re kidding about bombing a plane.
I watch The French Connection and this is where my head goes today.
What would have happened if Popeye had gone to a different club that night, or been less driven? All that heroin would have hit the streets, but I don’t see anyone claiming this or any other drug bust cleaned up the streets for good — not in New York in the ’70s, that’s for damn sure. Other than that? Sal and Pierre would have lived. And so would the young mother who was shot when Pierre was firing at Popeye. And the cop on the train. And the conductor. And Bill Mulderig.
So yes; due to the efforts of dedicated law enforcement personnel, crime has been thwarted — but have you seen the bill?
That’s the dirty truth of The French Connection. There’s no happy ending. Just a reminder of what the world becomes when everyone turns into a potential criminal.
And in case you’re confused, your role in this is Cloudy’s. If you’re tired, hurt, had enough: say so. Someone — Popeye’s friend — should tell him to stop before someone gets hurt.
Have a nice day.