Rough Justice: THE FRENCH CONNECTION (20th Century Fox 1971)

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First of all, I’d like to thank Kellee Pratt of Outspoken and Freckled for inviting me to participate in the 31Days of Oscar Blogathon. It’s cool to be part of the film blogging community, and even cooler because I get to write about THE FRENCH CONNECTION, a groundbreaking movie in many ways. It was the first R-Rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and scored four other golden statuettes as well. It also helped (along with the Clint Eastwood/Don Siegel DIRTY HARRY) usher in the 70’s “tough cop” genre, which in turn spawned the proliferation of all those 70’s cop shows that dominated network TV back then (KOJAK, STARSKY & HUTCH, BARETTA, etc, etc).

The story follows New York City cops Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and his partner Sonny “Cloudy” Russo as they investigate a large shipment of heroin being brought in from France. The detectives focus on Sal Boca, a small time hood suddenly spreading big money around, and connected to mob lawyer Joe Weinstock. They get a tip the drugs are coming in, and follow Frenchman Alain Charnier. The cat-and-mouse game is on, and the film essentially becomes the race to find and stop the shipment from hitting the streets, including an iconic scene where Doyle commandeers a car to chase down an elevated train carrying Charnier’s murderous associate.

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Gene Hackman won the Oscar for his portrayal of Popeye Doyle. He’s Archie Bunker with a badge, spewing profanity-laced ethnic slurs at every perp he comes across, tossing in non-sequiturs like “You ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” to keep them off-balance. Doyle breaks the rules with abandon, doing whatever it takes to clean up his city. Popeye Doyle may be a flawed human being, and you may not agree with his methods, but he’s an honest cop doing a tough job. He’s an anti-hero, and Hackman deserved his Oscar for his stark, realistic performance.

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The rest of the cast is outstanding as well. Co-star Roy Scheider (Russo) went on to lead roles in JAWS, ALL THAT JAZZ, BLUE THUNDER, and 2010. Spanish actor Fernando Rey (Charnier) worked in many of Luis Bunuel’s films. Tony LoBianco (Sal) is a dependable character actor who never quite made the leap to stardom. The real life Popeye and Cloudy, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, appear in the film, with Egan playing Doyle’s superior. R&B group The Three Degrees (“When Will I See You Again”) are featured in the nightclub scene.

William Friedkin’s career was stuck in neutral before THE FRENCH CONNECTION. He made his debut directing Sonny & Cher in GOOD TIMES, followed by a few artsy films that went nowhere at the box office. He took on THE FRENCH CONNECTION after getting some advice from his then-girlfriend’s father. You may have heard of him… Howard Hawks. Friedkin’s direction here is like Hawks-on-steroids, and nabbed him an Oscar as well. His next movie was an even bigger blockbuster, 1973’s THE EXORCIST. Friedkin’s other films have been uneven; some of his better ones are SORCERER, THE BRINK’S JOB, and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (a personal favorite of mine).

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Bill Hickman has a part as Mulderig, a Federal agent at odds with Doyle. Hickman was primarily a stunt driver, noted for the chase through San Francisco in Steve McQueen’s BULLITT. He staged the chase here as well, filmed on the streets of Brooklyn. It’s a crazy, tense thrill ride that ranks with the screen’s best chases, and part of the reason DP Owen Roisman and editor Gerald Greenburg took home Oscars, too. Let’s not forget the gritty screenplay by Ernest Tidyman, which gave THE FRENCH CONNECTION five Academy Awards all totaled.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a hard, in-your-face movie that helped Oscar grow up, with a remarkable performance by Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle, a character who was a product of his time. It’s one of the best crime films of the 70’s, and still holds up well, unlike some other cop movies of the era. Just writing this review makes me want to watch it again!

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11 Replies to “Rough Justice: THE FRENCH CONNECTION (20th Century Fox 1971)”

  1. What a great write-up on such an intense, and riveting film. Whenever ya think of a 70s film with legendary car chases, I always go to this film first. But it’s also the first film I think of in the Gene Hackman filmography, even though he’s made SO many great roles- this one ranks at the top. Thanks for joining our blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! Haven’t seen this one but I think Gene Hackman is terrific, so this is something I need to rectify. The early 70s did seem the time for a blossoming of gritty cop dramas; interesting that this one was leading the pack. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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