Monday 24 August 2020

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection

I have vague memories of having watched “The French Connection” years ago, but it must either have been a very long time ago or a different movie I am confusing it with, because none of what I saw this time round matched my recollections of the movie. Well, poor memory means that I get to enjoy movies as if it was first time.

“The French Connection” is a celebrated movie. No less than five Academy Awards, including some of the big ones, and a ton of other awards. This is supposed to be a big experience. Yet, it sort of fell flat for me. Not that it is bad, but over the years I have seen hundreds of movies and tv-series going exactly where the French Connection is going. Shabby New York policemen chasing international drug smugglers. A washed-out policeman with a hunch, deadly gun fights and car races. Arguments with the police boss, stalk-outs that may or may not yield anything. Is this an episode of “District Hill Street” or “Beverly Hills Cop”? Okay, maybe “The French Connection” started a trend, but I cannot help it, I was, frankly, a bit bored watching this cliché feast.

To my mind, “Get Carter” was a lot more interesting to watch.

Anyway, “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are two New York Policemen in the narcotics division spending their time catching small fish in Brooklyn. Doyle, who is a bit on the frantic side, has an eye for pointing out scumbags and gets a hunch about some people he spots in a nightclub. On the spot he decides that they should explore this and so a lengthy stalking part ensues. In parallel we follow a French narcotics smuggler, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), and his dodgy companions, who a setting up a big shipment of heroin to the US, which he will deliver himself. Eventually the stalking leads to the Frenchmen.

The Feds get involved, but since Doyle has a bad reputation, they are convinced there is nothing in it and Doyle and Russo are asked to drop the case. At this point Charnier’s gunman, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), makes an assassination attempt at Doyle, killing an innocent bystander instead. The resulting chase is probably the most famous scenes of the movie where Nicoli hijacks a train, killing several people in the process and Doyle chasing the train on the road underneath it in an increasingly wrecked car. However, it is only when they bring in Charnier’s luxury car and find a pile of drugs that everybody get convinced, leading up to the final showdown.

The most remarkable here is not the story, but the cinematography. It is possible New York looked bad in 71, but I am convinced the cinematographer (Owen Roizman) made it look a lot worse. Everything is grey and dirty, rundown and ruined. Post-apocalyptic, really, and it actually fits the frantic and seedy Doyle. His mess of an apartment looks much like the rest of the town.

Reading up on the movie, the ending is supposed to be special, so I was looking forward to it. It is supposed to be a big downer, but Doyle is just doing what he has been doing throughout, chasing bad guys without a care for whoever happens to be in the way. I guess there is a case there for police violence… 

Somewhat related, I found it baffling that the massive killing spree in the train chase was passed over with no implications. To me this looked like a major disaster including the derailing of the train, but the movie just moves on as if nothing had happened. This was for me a much larger story than the drug-bust, but maybe the idea is that people got killed by trigger happy gangsters on a daily basis in 1971 New York. It certainly helped promoting the apocalyptic ambience, if not the logic of the storyline.

As I said “The French Connection” is not a bad film and I am pretty certain it has its fanbase. I was disappointed, but that may just be me.



  1. For the life of me, I do not understand why people love this film. Sure, there's a great chase scene, but Bullitt did it first. Other than that?

    Even more, every time I ask people why they love this film, I don't get a concrete answer.

    1. Yes, it was interesting to read your review because I think we had much the same experience. This is supposed to be great, but I do not understand why.

  2. I saw this when it first came out and all I remember is the chase scene. Oh and Fernando Rey waving bye-bye on the subway.

    1. Fernando Rey is good and fun to see him outside a Bunuel movie.
      I can understand why you remember the chase scene. It is the best part of the movie.