The French Connection (1971)

French

Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: Ernest Tidyman (screenplay); Robin Moore (based on the book by)

Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey

I absolutely love this film — and I feel a little guilty about that.

There are so many great things about this classic Best Picture winner, but it’s hard to watch this movie from 46 years ago and not see some of the culturally problematic layers.

But first, the good stuff: The most famous scene of this movie is the frenetic car chase that features Gene Hackman as Detective Popeye Doyle (one of the all-time great character names). If The French Connection doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea, you need to at least watch this scene, as Doyle speeds through the streets of New York, trying to keep pace with an elevated subway train on which a French assassin is trying to escape. The fact that this was filmed in 1971 completely blows my mind, and the trivia behind the filming itself is even crazier.

According to IMDB, the filmmakers shot the scene without getting the proper permits from the city. So although the NYPD did help them with traffic control, there were parts caught on camera where civilian drivers make their way into the path of the speeding car. According to Hackman, one of the cars that he slams into was that of a resident of the neighborhood who was just pulling out onto the street.

Aside from the car chase you have a pretty classic cop movie in which New York City takes on a role as one of the main characters. It’s one of those films that makes you want to take a trip and see the sights that you’re watching in front of you. Roy Scheider adds a needed balance as the good cop to Hackman’s bad cop, and Fernando Rey knocks it out of the park as the cunning French baddie.

So how does this movie make me uncomfortable? First there’s Popeye Doyle, who, despite having an amazing name, continually shows himself to be a racist, sexist character. Actor Peter Boyle actually turned down the role because of the character’s unsavory tendencies. Obviously racism and sexism are nothing new to films, but  because Doyle receives so little pushback from any other characters, the movie comes off as lacking some self-awareness.

There’s not a single female character worth noting in this movie. In fact, there might only be two women, and they’re both sexualized in some way. And when Doyle and his partner go looking for drugs on the street, they go to the black neighborhood bars and rough the patrons up. And while those scenes are unfortunately realistic of what police work was like in the 1970s, it’s not easy to watch nearly 50 years later while realizing we haven’t evolved past that behavior much at all.

That said, The French Connection has landed somewhere in the list of my top 100 movies of all time. I hate that I have to apologize for parts of it, but what director William Friedkin was able to put together is a thrilling police drama that films like The Departed and shows like The Wire obviously draw inspiration from. It’s a classic for a reason.