An art teacher once told me that a beat-up pair of tennis shoes is a lot more interesting to draw than a brand-new pair. I thought of my art teacher’s advice as I re-watched The French Connection during Oscars weekend.
The movie is justly famous for its gritty adaptation of Robin Moore’s book about two New York detectives who attempt to stop a French-based crime ring from distributing a large heroin shipment to the United States. The movie turned Gene Hackman into an international star and featured one of the most memorable car chases in film history. But 45 years later, I am equally impressed at how director William Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman captured the grime and decay of 1970s New York. In the city’s fractured streets, they found a brutality that made New York fertile ground for drug abuse.
The French Connection endures as a testament to the appeal of ugliness, which we see through the perspective of its main character and the urban locations Friedkin chose as a backdrop for the drama.
A Fascinating Protagonist
The main character, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, is based on the real-life detective Eddie Egan, who, along with his partner Sonny Grosso, was the focus of Robin Moore’s book. Doyle and his partner, Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (portrayed by Roy Scheider), combine hunches and dogged investigation to try and stop French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) from importing a massive shipment of heroin into the United States.
Gene Hackman plays Popeye Doyle as an unlikeable person. He is a racist. He drinks excessively. He treats women like sexual conquests. He is also so reckless in his pursuit of Charnier that he is willing to jeopardize the lives of his fellow police officers and any innocent bystander who happens to be in the vicinity when it’s time to draw his pistol and chase the bad guy. At the same time, his dogged pursuit of criminals — his devotion to his job — makes him a fascinating character. He is the antithesis of the cool private detective portrayed by Richard Roundtree in Shaft, which had been released a few months earlier. John Shaft is cool. Popeye Doyle is passionate to a fault. Doyle’s disregard for humanity around him and an inability to contain his hair-trigger impulses make him as compelling an anti-hero as Clint Eastwood’s Inspector Harry Callahan became in Dirty Harry, released about two months after The French Connection.
In his defining scene, Doyle pursues a hit man, Pierre Nicoli, whom Charnier has dispatched to kill Doyle. Even if you have not seen the movie, you probably know about the car chase that leads up to the moment when Doyle kills Nicoli on the steps of a train platform.
But equally memorable is the way Doyle kills Nicoli: shooting him in the back. On the commentary track for the Blu-ray of the movie, William Friedkin comments that it was important to depict Doyle shooting a man in the back to demonstrate the nature of Doyle’s character. For Popeye Doyle, there is no gentlemanly code of conduct to govern his actions.
A Compelling Location
The New York of The French Connection is crumbling from within, and the movie captures its decay with a patina of grime. Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo pursue their prey on cracked sidewalks where strung-out vagrants sleep in cold, shadowy alcoves. They interrogate suspects in burned-out alleys.
Doyle lives in a bleak tenement that is the picture of urban blight. The detectives work in a grim-looking office, they eat pizza that looks like cardboard, and they drink coffee that tastes so bad that Doyle dumps his on the sidewalk.
The New York they are pledged to protect and serve is crawling with drug addicts who are growing increasingly desperate for the lack of heroin making its way to the streets. At the same time, drugs are everywhere — pills, grass, and hashish hidden beneath bar counters, floating around in coat pockets, and rolled up in socks. At one point, an informant tells Doyle about the rumored shipment of heroin that will “make everybody well,” which pretty much sums up the way drugs have ravaged the city.
The ugly world of New York contrasts sharply with that of the criminals who seek to import a large cache of heroin from France. Charnier and his accomplices are nattily dressed in leather jackets and fashionable coats. Even the brutal assassin Nicoli sports a cravat. Charnier hangs out in a villa on the Mediterranean. He smuggles heroin in a luxury automobile while the detectives drive beaters. Charnier does not live a gaudy lifestyle that Brian De Palma would depict in Scarface a decade later; he possesses a refined elegance. When Charnier attempts to elude Doyle in a seedy, abandoned warehouse full of rust and dirty pools of water, it’s easy to imagine Charnier dusting off his coat and minding his shoes even with Doyle in hot pursuit.
Appropriately, the movie’s final shot consists of the inside of a creepy, hollowed out building in a scruffy yard on Ward Island where abandoned cars are auctioned. The camera lingers on a cold, filthy hallway of what once was a factory of some type, as if to leave the lasting impression of a city in decline. Doyle has disappeared from view, searching for a criminal amid the wreckage.
The Art of Ugly
When The French Connection was released in 1971, the movie impressed critics for having the guts to depict the similar ways that cops and criminals think and act, a motif that would repeat itself often on film (reaching its apex with Michael Mann’s Heat in 1995). The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won for Best Picture (the first R-rated movie to do so), Best Director (Friedkin), Best Actor (Hackman), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman), and Best Film Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg).
The French Connection also has the nerve to paint a detailed picture of a battered city that serves as the killing ground for the cops and robbers. The New York of the 1970s was indeed worn down by crime and economic hard times. Since then, a widescale beautification of the city has changed New York, as movie location scout Nick Carr discusses on his blog Scouting New York.
In examining humanity’s decay, Friedkin elevated The French Connection above the level of standard cops-and-robbers thriller. The French Connection remains a potent reminder of the city’s past — and a demonstration of the art of ugly.