Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Ernest Tidyman
Cinematographer: Owen Roizman
by Jon Cvack
Even as I was getting into film, I didn’t understand a lot of my sister’s friends interest in older films. I’m not talking the AFI top 100 and stuff like that, but more obscure fair. Yet the older I get the more I appreciate film’s ability to capture moments in time. One of the greatest examples is The Naked City ('48), which films on location all over 1940s New York City, allowing us to see the city as it was, instead of dressed as the filmmakers wanted us to see.
The French Connection provides a glimpse into New York City during the early 1970s. I had watched this film while working off the AFI Top 100 list, and like many of the films, it was too early for me to understand what the film had accomplished. It’s shot in a gritty hand held realism style, feeling much more like a documentary about two undercover detectives than the traditional polished narrative about officers hunting down some drug dealers. There are moments where we seem to just miss what we are about to see, or can’t hear what we’re suppose to because a truck drives by or the character mumbles. We are pulled along the narrative, figuring it all out as it occurs, hoping to capture the relevant information between all the overlapping dialogue and diegetic sounds. As Ebert notes, the story line hardly really matters. It’s about following the characters, getting a taste of the city, and becoming immersed within all of the real locations.
I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even know this was based off a real story. Turns out the opium trade migrated to France as Turkish and Indian farmers were allowed to produce poppie opium for legal drug use during the 1960s and 70s. However, the excess was sold to the black market, which then made its way to the states. It got to the point where the dealers were smuggling in about 200 pounds of Heroin every other week, with the Feds only seizing about 200 pounds per year.
By 1971, the year The French Connection was released, the Turkish government officially banned its opium seed production. The trafficking continued, with the French smugglers bribing police and military personnel to assist with the imports. It eventually led to one of the biggest corruption cases in US history, involving the NYPD. The details were never discovered, but it involved officers replacing the seized heroin with flour and cornstarch. Eventually, it was discovered that insects were eating these bags of faux-heroin, uncovering the ill-dealings that were going on for years.
The French Connection wasn’t the only film that alluded to these dealings (although it was the most direct). Others were The Godfather I & II, Prince of the City, American Gangster, and, of course, The French Connection II. However, one of the most fascinating elements of the entire situation was that the downfall largely began after The French Connection was released. I haven’t found any evidence that it contributed to the bust, or how much, but I’m sure it was at least partially significant to shedding light on the situation.
Of course, the most memorable moment is the famous car chase, often regarded as one of the best ever produced. Given that it was all filmed on actual New York streets, it’s fascinating to read about the ways they achieved such a realistic action sequence. Cinematographer Owen Roizman undercranked the film to 18fps so that he could speed up the sequence, along with working with William Friedkin to find the best lenses that could cheat distance - something that Spielberg would eventually use for his famous feature-length car chase film, Duel.
However, it’s the end that I had forgotten all about. The fact that Popeye (Gene Hackman) shoots the federal agent and Charnier (Fernando Rey), but Mulderig (Bill Hickman) ends up getting away just never stuck with me. After all of the dirt, grime, and grit, after they bend the law as far as they can in order to a job well done, the man escapes. Popeye and Buddy are transferred out of narcotics. I haven’t seen the sequel yet, but I do know that Popeye makes a comeback. Though like any sequel, you can’t really use that to the judge the original. In some ways the movie’s ending is extraordinarily depressing. In others, it’s perfectly fitting given how far the law was bent to capture their suspects and the comeuppance they faced.
BELOW: A documentary about the actual French Connection
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