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Celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, critical opinion on William Friedkin’s The French Connection was divided at its release, but it also won 5 Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor in a Lead Role (Gene Hackman), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. And today you will find it on most lists of greatest films of all time. Its renown and influence have only grown over the decades as filmmakers from Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) to the Safdie Brothers (Uncut Gems) have sung its praises. And if you’ve ever seen David Fincher’s gritty detective thriller Se7en, then you should know that he was highly influenced by The French Connection.
While The French Connection is known principally for actor Gene Hackman’s performance as New York City detective Popeye Doyle and a chase scene between a car and train, there are plenty of other reasons to admire Friedkin’s film.
Below, we’ll explore a few things that make the gritty crime thriller so iconic.
The film revolutionized car chases
As we noted above, The French Connection is well-known for the final chase scene, in which a car follows an elevated train through Brooklyn streets. And there is a good reason why the film features one of the greatest chase scenes ever put to film.
Similar to Peter Yates’ 1968 film Bullitt, Friedkin utilized a car mount for the film’s final chase. The production fixed a camera mount to the front bumper, giving the scene a lot of low-angle shots as Popeye Doyle’s car weaves recklessly through the streets of Brooklyn.
To enhance the sense of speed, Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman shot the chases at a lower frame rate (undercranked to 18fps) to make the pursuits appear faster than they actually were.
The gritty, documentary-like atmosphere
The French Connection is known for the street-level grit of its handheld cinematography, location shooting, action and even the actors that didn’t look like Hollywood stars. This style wasn’t accidental.
Before directing feature films, William Friedkin worked as a documentary filmmaker. In an American Film Institute interview, Friedkin spoke to a live audience about giving The French Connection an “induced documentary style.”
“When you do a documentary, you go out and follow people who are in various walks of life. They’re doing their own thing, [and] you don’t know what they’re going to do or say—you follow them around with a camera,” said Friedkin. “That’s the type of documentary I made but with more movement and following people in their work. When I got to The French Connection… I realized that I could take that technique and use it as a style for this film. In other words, I could make it look like a documentary even though it was not.”
To create that style, Friedkin rehearsed scenes with actors without a camera in the room, and he would only tell the lighting and camera crew where the actors’ approximate location and movement (blocking) would be. As a result, as Friedkin explained, the camera operator often didn’t know where the actors would go.
Friedkin credits this method with giving The French Connection its gritty, street-level vibe. The filmmaker also cited as inspiration for his documentary-like approach Costa-Gavras’ 1969 Film Z, which explores the events surrounding the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis.
“After I saw Z, I realized how I could shoot The French Connection because he shot Z like a documentary,” said Friedkin in an audio commentary on the Collector’s Edition DVD release. “It was a fiction film, but it was made like it was actually happening. Like the camera didn’t know what was gonna happen next.”
“And that is an induced technique,” he added. “It looks like he happened upon the scene and captured what was going on as you do in a documentary. My first films were documentaries too, so I understood what he was doing, but I never thought you could do that in a feature at that time until I saw Z.”
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Exploring the sociological impact of drugs
Early Hollywood detective dramas and noirs weren’t too realistic, both in how they were filmed and their subject matter. This began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s with films like Bullitt, The French Connection and Dirty Harry.
However, The French Connection stands above both Bullitt and Dirty Harry in its subject matter’s realism.
Taken from ‘Dirty Harry’
Take the film’s name, for instance. It clearly references the name of the smuggling ring based in France, which flooded America with heroin imported into East Coast cities from the 1930s into the 1970s. While fictionalized to give the film Hollywood drama, Friedkin adapted the script from the book of the same name, which followed New York City detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso as they tried to bring to justice those involved in The French Connection ring.
The underground heroin trade was a big concern at the time of filmmaking, and Friedkin’s film explores how the grimy New York City streets where the drug was destroying lives and wrecking communities. This approach to the subject matter helped Friedkin give his “induced documentary style” some added realism.
Popeye Doyle reimagined the anti-hero
Many good anti-heroes certainly existed before The French Connection or around the same time as the film’s release. Think of characters like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, “The Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” Alex from A Clockwork Orange and the protagonists in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But with the film’s release, the story’s anti-hero got a big remix from William Friedkin and Gene Hackman.
The way Friedkin wrote and directed the film Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is anything but boring, but he’s kind of a crappy human being
. In the film, Doyle uses a lot of insensitive language, including racial slurs. He’s also an alcoholic and womanizer.
During production, Hackman fought Friedkin to make Doyle more relatable. However, the filmmaker prevailed with Hackman’s co-star Roy Scheider quoting him as saying, “No, he’s a son of bitch. He’s no good; he’s a prick.”While Doyle is clearly despicable and retrograde in our current culture, his sense of virtue and justice is not. Doyle would certainly not work as a character if the film were to be remade today, but as part of a historical cinematic document, Hackman’s Doyle is complex, like any anti-hero should be.