Classic crime movie staring Gene Hackman in the role of detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle that made him a star. The film was released in 1971 and like the similarly themed Dirty Harry it features an obsessive policeman who is shown to be nearly as brutal as the criminals he pursues. The French Connection was directed by William Friedkin one of the generation of American 70s directors influenced by new-wave cinema.

The film opens up in Marseille where a French detective is shot in the face by Fernando Rey playing a mastermind of French drug traffiking. The film then jumps to the streets of Brooklyn, New York, where Hackman is dressed in a Santa Claus outfit. His partner, Buddy Russo (played by Roy Scheider) is also undercover as a hot dog vendor, and they eventually end up chasing and catching a two bit drug dealer. However he has no drugs on him, but Doyle and Russo start up their version of the good cop, bad cop routine, and so trick the felon into admitting a misdemeanour. After work that night, the detectives go for a drink and end up tailing a suspicious couple. They witness a drug drop and this leads to a massive surveillance operation that will lead back to our friend in Marseilles who has imported a large shipment of heroin into New York.

This film is probably best known for the car chase where Hackman 'borrows' a citizen's car and pursues Rey, who is on board an elevated subway train. The camera is mounted onto the front fenders of the car to produce a hair-raising, out of control effect as the car weaves in and out of traffic, as Hackman juxtaposes viewing the road and the train above him. The impact of this scene has been improved though by the building of tension through the surveillance and trailing scenes during the middle of the movie, which successfully portrays the long hours and boredom that is neccessary to catch a crook. We also feel the resentment between the detectives Hackman and Scheider, and the pair of federal agents who are brought into the case. While the feds trail their lead in fancy restaurants in Manhattan, the cops have to endure cold pizza outside on a winters night. Once Hackman finally gets the trail of Rey, the Frenchman ('Frog One', as the cops nickname him) realises instantly, and in a cat and mouse game in a subway station, Rey outwits Hackman and smugly waves goodbye thorugh the window of a departing subway train.

Watching the film today, you can see many prototype elements of the buddy action flicks that became so popular and profitable in the 80s and 90s. But this film carries a realistic edge, with its humour and depiction of routine police work, which can be attributed to the film being based on actual New York narcotic detectives Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo who both had small parts in the movie. This attention to detail, combined with an ambiguous downbeat conclusion, may upset and disorientate a viewer brought up on recent Hollywood output, and expecting a thrill a minute Lethal Weapon style thriller. Having said that the car chase alone should place this movie high on a must-watch list.

The French Connection won 5 Oscars:

Best Picture
Best Actor - Gene Hackman
Best Director - William Friedkin
Best Adapted Screenplay - Ernest Tidyman
Best Editing - Jerry Greenberg

plus three more nominations:-

Best Supporting Actor - Roy Scheider
Best Sound - Theodore Soderberg and Christopher Newman
Best Cinematography - Owen Roizman

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