The influence of The French Connection on the modern “cops and robbers” flick remains intact after almost 41 years. A bold look at the gritty detective tale whose characters merge the line between good and bad. There are no winners in the end of this movie which in turn defied the traditional Hollywood narrative, and has got the academy awards to prove it.
William Freidkin used his background in documentary filmmaking to shoot the film in its unique documentary style. Vying for voice-over during the stake-out scenes that gave the film a certain edge, this style also worked because of the nature of the film, a realistic look at the crime genre. The concept was originally brought to the attention of Freidkin through Philip D’Antoni, the producer for the film Bullitt. The French Connection was a non-fiction book, based on the giant heroin bust by New York city detectives Eddie Egan & Sonny Grosso. Freidkin said that the book seemed “procedural and dry”. In Freidkin’s autobiography The Freidkin Connection, he goes in depth about his meetings with Egan & Grosso, the ride along that he went on and the fascinating characters that they became. In fact, the entire bar sequence actually happened. The two off duty detectives (Egan & Grosso) were at a bar when they brought their attention to a low enforcer who was spending big and decided to tail him, starting the investigation.
At this point in Freidkin’s career he had not done anything that was as commercially or critically successful. He worked in Los Angeles at a company producing documentaries and had the opportunity to direct a movie with Sunny Bono & Cher called Good Times, and two play adaptations: Boys in The Band, and The Birthday Party. However, the latter was the only film that Freidkin wanted to do. Yet, The French Connection was different. It was a labor of love. He stayed with the project for over 2 years going from studio to studio, re-vamping the script with two different writers and finally, after all their hardship, D’Antoni & Freidkin finally got funding.
The best part of the writing was what wasn’t written. This film does not give the audience any information in the first parts of the movie, keeping us intrigued and in suspense. More so, it compels us to think and does not dumb things down for audiences. From the scenic shots of the French Rivera in the opening scenes to the use of the gritty shots of the underbelly of NYC, we as the audience are taken on a ride, sometimes information is given, and most often it is taken away. At no point during this film did you feel you were being talked down to.
If you take anything from this film, it’s the car chase. After an attempted assassination, Detective ‘Popeye’, takes his car and follows the train dangerously and with relentless passion, a passion that came from his obsession with the case. The audience felt his anger and frustration as the French assassin was getting close to escape This stunt was incredibly dangerous. The entire sequence of scenes was impromptu and unrehearsed. Replacing Gene Hackman with the stunt driver and going through the streets of New York dangerously. Freidkin later expressed his regret on the WTF podcast with Marc Maron stating that he doesn’t like talking about the stunt, and that he regrets his action because people would have gotten hurt. He cites ego as the motivating factor for doing the scenes.
Watch this film. If anything, watch the car chase on YouTube if you haven’t seen it yet. This movie screens the best parts of a cops and robbers tale, showcasing a unique narrative style and tight script, leaving the audience with questions rather than answers.