There is a pervading gritty realism to William Friedkin’s French Connection that undoubtedly took some cues from the French New Wave and the Neorealist movements. Hand-held cameras are taken to the streets of New York and to the train terminals. There is literally trash piling up in the gutters, old dilapidated bathroom stalls, and worn out facades all over the city. It’s urban, depressed, and a place of crime. In many ways this film is like Bullitt for New York, in fact, Steve McQueen was even offered the lead.
However, this time around our main cop is Popeye Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) and his partner Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider). Both play a key role, but Popeye (the man with the hat) is of the greater interest. He’s a wise guy, belligerent, barking, loud-mouthed hot head, often driven by obsession in his job. He also happens to be an undercover cop in the narcotics division. He’s used to getting dirty and using the rough stuff when necessary. After all, it’s a jungle out there and there’s no room for pushovers.
From the get-go, we come to understand that this story has a French Connection, in Marseilles to be exact, and we know who is involved (Fernando Rey). We just cannot quite pick out all the details. Simultaneously, on a hunch, Doyle and Russo start running surveillance on a guy they happen upon in a club. Things don’t quite add up since he runs a deli called Sal and Angie’s by day and lives it up at night. An undercover informant also tips Popeye off to a big shipment of heroin that’s coming in.
Sal Boca has to be into something and so a game of tailing begins on the streets after he and his French contacts are spotted together. Frog 1 named Charnier (Rey) has Popeye on his tail only to shake him adeptly. That’s only the beginning, however, after a sniper comes after Popeye and yet another chase ensues. The fugitive boards a train and Doyle commandeers a car to follow close behind. Thus, was born one of the greatest car chases of all time and it doesn’t even involve two cars. After the adrenaline of that moment has worn off Doyle and Russo are on another stakeout and this time impound a car belonging to frog # 2 Henri Devereaux. Popeye has a gut feeling that the vehicle’s dirty and they literally tear it apart end to end, with little luck. But he’s a force of nature and very little will get in the way of his obstinate drive.
When the drop finally takes place everything goes off smoothly enough, but there’s a roadblock, and Popeye is waiting for them with a playful wave. He’s got them now. The final roundup leads him into an old warehouse as the hunt continues, but The French Connection finishes open-ended. Sal was gunned down, the meeting was busted, but not everyone was caught, and Charnier seems to have vanished into thin air. To top it off, Doyle shoots the wrong man and without flinching continues his obsessive hunt.
Friedkin’s film was partially based on true events from the 1960s and the two men the story was patterned after actually are featured as the boys’ superior Walt Simonson (Eddie Egan) and federal agent Bill Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who has a longstanding dislike for Doyle. Their presence in the production of this film helps to lend to the realism and nuances that the film is able to take on. The score isn’t all that noticeable, but it’s a tense arrangement that adds some underlining anxiety to some scenes. Stakeouts get more interesting than you would ever give them credit for. Really on the simplest level, this film is about one man’s hunt, his obsessive chase, which at times no longer seems about justice at all, but personal vindication.