The French Connection: 50 Years

It seems like everything is celebrating 50 years. I never imagined that I would be old enough to remember anything 50 years old. That would make me….older than 50.

I read an an interview with the semi-reclusive Gene Hackman, who won his first Academy Award playing Popeye Doyle and became an A-list leading man with the film. So I was surprised by his somewhat dismissive comments about the film.

“[I] haven’t seen the film since the first screening in a dark, tiny viewing room in a post-production company’s facility 50 years ago,” Hackman told the New York Post, adding, “If the film has a legacy, I am not sure what that would be. At the time, it seemed to me to be a reverent story of a cop who was simply able to solve and put a stop to a major crime family’s attempt to infiltrate the New York drug scene.”

It may have felt like just another film to Hackman, especially since it had such a downbeat aura and ending. Yet, the film vibrates with tension, especially when Hackman gets into the Buick.

The centerpiece of the film was the car chase, primarily shot without permits and in live traffic. “As for the car chase, there was a better one filmed a few years earlier with Steve McQueen,” Hackman said.

Stuntman/actor Bill Hickman, who also drove in the McQueen film, was behind the wheel of the car Hackman was supposed to be in. Three cameras were on the car and director William Friedkin operated one of those cameras.

“It was only by the grace of God that nobody was hurt or injured in any way — or died because of that,” Friedkin told the Post.

Director Friedkin and Hackman

There were many crime films released in those days, may of them slick Hollywood productions or low-budget films that were grim and violent. The French Connection took the best qualities of each: gritty and realistic, but with production and marketing muscle.

New York City of the early 1970s had an ugliness and urban decay, as drugs were becoming a growing concern and the city was facing a growing financial crisis. Friedkin’s film embraces the look and feel of a city in transition. Hackman’s character, drawn from a actual event, shows a dedicated, but heavily flawed police detective, who is hardly the poster boy for police-community relations. Doyle is profane, angry and unapologetic. He was not a very nice person.

Hackman played many flawed characters in his long career. His characters are usually pushy, outspoken and over-thinkers. That he has only seen The French Connection once, can read that it was a character he wanted distance from, but he knowledges the film helped his career.

So, that is the legacy of this film?

A better detective story? Nope. Bullitt might have had a superior car chase, but this film had a much better narrative. This film was a methodical unraveling of a hunch, the bureaucracy and limited resources, the long hours and dead-ends, and unglamorous work of detectives. Sure, there are good Hollywood films like Heat, The Departed, Zodiac, Sicario, Seven, In the Valley of Elah and L.A.Confidential. The French Connection is more like a foreign film. Minimal music, flawed protagonist, grim looking visuals, semi-documentary style of storytelling, and unsatisfying ending.

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