THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)

french“We had to destroy the town in order to save it.” That quote, supposedly by a U.S. Army officer (and slightly distorted in popular retelling) encapsulated how many Americans came to feel about the Vietnam War. In 1971, President Nixon declared a war of another sort- a “war on drugs”. Four decades in, even mainstream thinkers have openly questioned whether the War on Drugs has, on balance, done more ill than good; whether we have been “destroying towns in order to save them,” so to speak. Fittingly, that same year this war was declared, the Best Picture winner was a crime drama about heroin smugglers and the police hunting them down.

Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) and his partner “Cloudy” (Scheider), are NYC narcotics detectives. When they observe a fellow at a bar throwing cash around and socializing with known narcotics figures, they suspect a large transaction is imminent and at Popeye’s insistence, they investigate. This backs up their suspicions and despite lukewarm support from their superiors, and Popeye’s sometimes erratic behavior, they continue to pursue this connection between a minor local criminal and several French men staying in town.

This was an engaging film, but I can’t help but notice there weren’t any characters of note who were women. I kept waiting for there to be a little more development of Angie, the young wife of Sal – the fellow throwing cash around at a bar. She wears a wig when they are out galavanting, and we learn that she is only 19. She seems savvy, and I thought there was an opportunity for the filmmakers to tell us a bit more about how she got where she is in the story. However, as Mouse pointed out, we don’t really get much on background with any of the characters. That may be the case, but at least the men have more time on screen.

This is a true detective story, and I must admit it is a genre I am not incredibly familiar with. The story kept my attention, but what I liked best were the scenes of both Marseilles and New York City circa the early 1970s. I visited Marseilles on tour with my band a few years ago, and found it to be a distinctive place – a European city, but near enough to the coast to have almost a Middle Eastern feel. It’s interesting to see how the “French connection” develops, as the worlds of the two cities feel so disparate initially. Mouse also informed me that at that time, a great deal of heroin was being traded out of France.

Popeye’s recklessness feels nerve wracking but realistic. He is entrusted with narcotics police work ostensibly to help people, but when we see how he conducts himself, it becomes clear that he throws caution to the wind and is willing to endanger others in pursuit of nailing his target and being right. Because of this, I think Mouse’s assessment of this film as a cautionary tale about the “War on Drugs” is accurate. And just think – this was made before the 80s, when that precise war claimed so much collateral damage.

There are two ways to read this film. The first is as an exciting detective movie, which it absolutely is; a fully realized genre film. The hardboiled cop movie a cousin of sorts to the western. In the western, drama takes place in a world without functioning civil institutions and resolution or justice is achieved by means of violence, heroic acts and the settling of personal vendettas. The second reading of The French Connection is as a prescient allegory of everything that is wrong with the drug war. The ingredients listed above as a successful formula for compelling action are also a recipe for terrible real-world policing. Popeye indefatigably pursues the case, almost to an obsessive level. But he is also racist, assaults suspects without compunction and readily endangers others’ safety and property.

As the film went on, I unconsciously expected it to adhere to movie conventions and provide a scene wherein the other characters say to Popeye “You were right all along.” But unlike, say, Dirty Harry’s Detective Callahan who gradually invites the audience to sympathize with his questionable tactics, Doyle eventually had me wondering if he is even supposed to be the good guy of this movie. Suspecting the large drug transaction in the first place was about the only really good bit of police work he demonstrates. Other characters bring up unpleasant incidents from the past, which makes me wonder if this is the story of a maniac with a badge who just happens to be right this one time. But just because I find Popeye Doyle hard to like as a person doesn’t mean I don’t like watching him in this movie. Hackman gets him right as simultaneously hyperfocused and troublingly erratic. Back to the western genre again, there is precedent for this sort of troubled protagonist, most notably John Wayne’s Ethan in The Searchers. This even has me wondering if Popeye’s pork pie hat is supposed to suggest a round brimmed cowboy hat, similar to Harvey Keitel’s Comanche-inspired headband in Taxi Driver? The story ends on an ambiguous note, which I respect. And the dark edges to the main character are what prevent the movie from being just a really long episode of Dragnet.

I was frustrated by the end of the movie, but I guess I am impatient – or perhaps too used to a standard formula. I wanted the payoff! I wanted to know whether Popeye was right, and how his colleagues responded. I was glad that at least there is some questioning when he essentially killed his DEA counterpart – Cloudy remarks on it with shock. Herein lies a point worthwhile of reflection today – Cloudy seems more sensible, more risk-averse, but ultimately he is along for the ride when it comes to Popeye. This film resonates today, in a world in which police engage in killings of unarmed people with startling regularity and most often with no consequence. It’s deadly to have people who are incautious and erratic on police forces – and yet it is inarguable that, just as we see in this film, we have many today.

In recent months I have been very interested in the policy agenda of Campaign Zero, coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement and centered on real reforms to modern policing. I am interested in what the organizers of Campaign Zero would have to say about police trainings. I know that some municipalities are trying to change the way they address use of force in such trainings. This feels like such a huge, daunting question. While the film The French Connection is in many ways very removed from the police concerns that are front and center today, there were some threads of commonality that gave me pause. I’d also be curious what Campaign Zero organizers and supporters would have to say about the film. Is it just a story of intrigue, or can we draw greater lessons from it?

Aside from the cops and crooks story, The French Connection has something else to offer modern viewers. Like all movies with a lot of location shooting, it functions as a time capsule from the time of its making. Watch it, and along with Gene Hackman as an angry mess of a cop (with a cool hat) hounding heroin traffickers, you also get great footage of Detroit-made land yachts cruising Ford-to-city-era NYC streets. I found it worth watching for that alone, but watching Gene Hackman use a car to chase down an el train through Brooklyn was pretty cool too. Even better than the credits from Welcome Back Kotter

Those scenes were great. So were the shots of Marseilles. It reminded me what a beautiful city it is. I only spent a brief 24 hours there once on tour, but it was like no place I have ever been. I remembered being fascinated by its relative proximity to Algiers and Tunisia, and how that painted it differently from other French cities I visited. I guessed at the location of the shots there within minutes of the film starting, and was glad it still loomed large enough in my memory for me to do so correctly. All in all, I enjoyed this film – and the location shots were the chief reasons for that.

Also nominated in 1971:
A Clockwork Orange
Fiddler on the Roof
The Last Picture Show
Nicholas and Alexandra

Next film: GRAND HOTEL (1932)

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2 Responses to “THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)”

  1. I had mixed feelings about this movie too, pretty much springing from Popeye’s racism. I watched it when I was younger and didn’t remember it too well, bought it on Amazon last year and was along for the ride until the racist remarks early on and ended up shutting it off at that point. I picked it back up a few months later after catching the sequel on Turner Classic Movies (“French Connection II” directed by John Frankenheimer, which is actually surprisingly entertaining and an interesting sequel if you haven’t seen it, albeit a completely fictional follow up to the essentially true predecessor). I love movies from that 70’s “new Hollywood” era style and this movie delivers so much of what I like about that in it’s realistic feel and that 70’s New York grimyness. There something that still feels so fresh to me about those movies, or maybe refreshing is a better word, because they don’t feel “factory made” the way movies have since the age of the blockbuster came into being. They just don’t make movies that feel fast and loose like that anymore, where even on multiple viewings they still have an air or unpredictability and invention about them. Anyway, what I’m getting at is I guess in that light is one of the few ways I could enjoy this movie, any I do like it, also Hackman’s performance is good and I always love to see Roy Scheider.

    Speaking of Scheider, I checked out 1977’s “Sorcerer” (a remake of Wages of Fear, about a rag-tag group of guys who volounteer for a suicide mission to deliver an old and highly unstable cargo of dynamite to the site of an oil well fire in a remote part of South America) and which like French Connection is also directed by William Friedken. It’s noted by some to be a trailmarker at the end of the “New Hollywood” era of filmaking, and is also pretty interesting, unique, some excellent and memorable visuals, memorable scenes and characters, worth seeing I think.

  2. I can appreciate the way the moral ambiguity of the protagonist is presented. I guess how comfortable you are with it comes down to how well you’re willing to trust audiences to evaluate fiction vs. reality, like I said last time.
    On recommendation from Roxy, I’ve had The Conversation on my list for a while. I should also grab Bonnie and Clyde and have a Hackmathon.

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