Soon after an undercover cop in Marseilles, France is killed by a hitman for getting too close to the truth about a huge drugs deal that is about to occur, in New York City two detectives Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) are going through with a stakeout. Doyle is dressed as Santa Claus, and passing the time by asking the local kids what they would like for Christmas, that is until Russo chases their suspect out of a bar and both of them race after him. But this man is a small link on the chain that goes all the way to back to Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey): the true mastermind at the head of the French connection...
In 1971, movie cops, and in a way television cops, changed forever thanks to two rebels in the police force. Not the actual police force, but the one on the silver screen for San Francisco had Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry showing that the only way to beat the bad guys was to throw away the rule book, and New York had Popeye Doyle. In his incarnation, based on a real life maverick detective called Eddie Egan (who also shows up playing Doyle's boss in this), he was really no better than the lowlifes that he had to overcome every day, and you get the impression that even Harry Callahan would have been less than pleased with his methods.
But if this film had anything to say, it was that foiling the villains was no longer a matter of white hats versus black hats as if this was a case for Roy Rogers, no, this was more complicated. Doyle stands out not because he is corrupt, however, as his misdemeanours are forgiven by Ernest Tidyman's script and we are meant to accept them as well, but the opposite: there is no doubt in his mind that he is on the side of right, and we must have faith in his underhand behaviour because we see that it gets the job done. Although even then, only to a certain extent, as the captions at the end show that sometimes the big ones get away, and the smaller fry get off with suspended sentences.
All of this contributes to the overwhelming air of urban paranoia about how far the crime rates were taking over in the big cities, a message that would fuel plenty of thrillers and police procedurals to come, and indeed still does. Be thankful for the men who are willing to get their hands dirty in the push for justice, says this film, because without them anarchy is just around the corner. It speaks to the potency of this notion that you could replace the more dated fashions of The French Connection and update them and it would still make a perfectly modern story, or even part of a crime show on T.V., but that is not to denigrate the achievement of the filmmakers.
Not in the least, for everyone, from the cast to the cinematographer to the editor, are on top form. In the role which made him a superstar, Hackman can be funny and troubling, often at the same time, making Doyle someone who you can believe is tenacious enough to follow Charnier through the streets and onto the subway when no one else will do it, while still understanding that he would be foolish enough to pick up a cyclist from the streets and take her home, only to allow her to handcuff him to the bed. The most celebrated part of the film is the chase between Doyle and the train, where the sniper who has nearly killed him tries to make his getaway: it's a masterpiece of tense action and could not have been better assembled. Yet it comes as the culmination of a host of great scenes, some more low key than others, all of which director William Friedkin ensures have the appropriate impact. Some may say it glorified bad policing, but you cannot deny how absorbing The French Connection is. Music by Don Ellis.
American writer/director who has struggled throughout his career to escape the legacy of two of his earliest films. Debuted in 1967 with the Sonny & Cher flick Good Times, but it was the gripping French Connection (1971) and phenomenonally popular The Exorcist (1973) that made Friedkin's name and influenced a whole decade of police and horror films. Since then, some of Friedkin's films have been pretty good (Sorcerer, the controversial Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Blue Chips, Bug, Killer Joe), but many more (The Guardian, Jade, Rules of Engagement) have shown little of the director's undoubtable talent.