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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #150: The French Connection

For a realistic look at police work in the United States nowadays you should look no further than HBO’s The Wire. In the 1970’s TV was not what it is today and movies was where directors like William Friedkin got to show the state of the never-ending war on drugs. In The French Connection (1971) Friedkin illustrates what life is for two hard working narcotics detective trying to take down a major drug operation that reaches all the way to southern France. It offers a realistic look at a very difficult investigation, but it also has one hell of a car chase.

The car chase was major reason why I decide to add The French Connection to my ever-growing collection of movies when I spotted it at HMV about ten years ago. Plus, it was one of those two for $20 deals so why not get a classic? Having grown up in the 90s my idea of a cop movie was the Lethal Weapon series in which for every interrogation there are five shootouts and as many car chases. Consequently I found Friedkin’s movie to be a bit slow upon first viewing, but I grew to appreciate it for its craftsmanship and performances. The 1975 sequel by John Frankenheimer is not as well regarded, but it is definitely worth watching if only to see the change of location from the streets of New York to sunny Marseille.

Based on a real life case, the film stars Gene Hackman in one of his best roles as Popeye Doyle, a hard living New York cop with his fair share of flaws, such unapologetic racism. Along with his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) he uncovers a drug operation run by a rich French criminal (Fernando Rey). When they discover their prey is a French citizen the two New York cops do the most American thing and label him Frog One. As a French Canadian, I find that only mildly offensive.

The thing about Frog One, real name Alain Charnier, is that he is no two-bit criminal from the streets. He knows the cops are onto him and he is good at avoiding surveillance. When Popeye starts following Charnier into the subway he keeps getting on and off the train until Popeye can’t keep track and waves at him as the train leaves the station. Even more infuriating is a sequence when Popeye is keeping an eye on the criminal mastermind from across the street while Charnier is eating at a fancy restaurant. I can't think of a better illustration of the disparity between cops and criminals than the image of Popeye trying to keep his hands warm and spitting out a horrible cup of coffee while the drug kingpin is comfortably eating an expensive meal and sipping wine.

Regardless of how much his job sucks, Popeye relentlessly chases his prey to the point that he becomes a danger for anyone in his way. When one of Charnier’s henchmen tries to take out Popeye and misses, Popeye gives chase and the killer highjacks an elevated train to make his escape. To catch up Popeye commandeers a car and tries to drive as fast as the train, at the risk of hitting other cars, drivers, and pedestrians. To give viewers an idea of how dangerous this is, there is p.o.v shot of Doyle’s car as it races through traffic and almost hit a baby stroller. It is of course not as impressive as the average car chase in the latest Fast and Furious movies, but as far as realistic and breathtaking chases go it still stands the test of time.

Crazy chase aside, The French Connection remains one of the most realistic interpretations of how police work is accomplished. Popeye and Buddy get their job done by doing hours of patient observation, listening in on the criminals through wiretaps, and getting information from informants. Since the movie is based on a decades old real life case it is no spoiler to say they eventually bust the drug ring, but anybody who watches the news will know that in the long run it did not make that much of a difference. There is still a lot of money to be made by criminals like Charnier selling illegal drugs, and they still get to live like rich men while the cops are drinking lousy coffee.


If there is a silver lining to this it’s that the cops get to be portrayed as hard working guys by Academy Award winning actors and the audience get to have a great movie based on one of their greatest case.



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