While it may always look and feel like one of the most unlikely Best Picture winners in the history of film, there is no looking past the gritty realism and the wonderful energy of William Friedkin's The French Connection. There is absolutely nothing about the film itself which would suggest it has that Best Picture pedigree; the look is scant and bare, the dialogue crude and low-lying, the elements of the picture steep in genre. It is an action thriller, a police procedural, and yet somehow in 1971 it found itself standing above all other films. The French Connection announced the arrival of a young Friedkin as one of the fresh new voices in the shifting cinematic decade of the 70s, and solidified the young(ish) Gene Hackman as a leading man who, like his unassuming film, seemed anything but leading man material.
The story is as straight forward as any run-of-the-mill police thriller. But, to borrow a line from Roger Ebert, a film is not so much what it's about as how it's about it. A film could be about two men stuck in an elevator, talking, but if it is told the right way with accurate performances it can be as compelling as an intricate spy thriller. In this police drama subgenre, The French Connection takes a basic premise and tells it with the ferocity of it's director. There are two policemen, partners, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) and Buddy Russo (the wonderful and always overlooked Roy Scheider). Popeye and Russo operate in the mean streets of Manhattan, shaking down lowlifes and drug dealers trying to get a lead and find that career-making case. Popeye is not necessarily the best cop, but he still hits the streets hard. And he isn't a wholesome man in blue; Doyle is racist, a bit crooked, and willing to step over the line to get his bad guy. So when he stumbles, literally, on a plot involving a large shipment of heroin being brought into the country from France, Doyle sees this as his chance to get out from under his boss's foot.
The villains in The French Connection are not fleshed out beyond what is necessary. Because this is a character study about Doyle wrapped in a genre picture. The French smugglers make connections and try and sneak the drugs in sealed within a Lincoln. Meanwhile, Doyle and Russo work tirelessly to get a leg up on the drug ring. Doyle functions with a single-minded desire that shapes his entire character. He doesn't take care of his own body, evidenced in the few scenes away from the case, because his body isn't important to him. Only catching the crooks and making his name matter. Doyle's investigation leads him closer and closer to the smugglers until they come after him, resulting in a car chase. Only this is not simply some other car chase; here is the car chase, still the most definitive in the never ending cavalcade of chase scenes.
Car chases take patience and spatial knowledge, attention to physical orientation and the ability to avoid CGI and fireballs when it is ever possible. 1968 had Bullitt, and the McQueen car chase through the streets of San Francisco. Last year's Drive had two fantastic sequences. The car chase in The French Connection might still be the pinnacle of the car chase. Because it is fast and furious (pun fully intended), it is frightening at times, it has different layers and elements like the runaway train Doyle is chasing from beneath, and it was filmed on real streets with real people in harm's way. As Doyle barrels through the city streets, every corner and pedestrian presents a threat.
At first glance The French Connection does not look like anything special, but that is the beauty and the genius of the picture. Hackman - who would win his first Best Actor Oscar as Doyle - delivers a tough-as-nails performance, and Friedkin - Best Director as well - is committed to his vision. The ending is enigmatic, a sign of the decade to come where films grew more experimental and began recognizing the artistic ability of its medium, and the story never takes the easy way out. Surprisingly, the sequel is adequate, but nothing close to this true original in (cliche alert) every sense of the word.