Written by: Ernest Tidyman
Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi
Games of cops and robbers infer the idea of good guys versus bad guys, thus creating this dichotomy from the very beginning in a children’s recreational activity. The particular shine has worn off a bit as time has gone on and gets displayed in the ever-famous but ultimately unsatisfying, The French Connection. A film made most famous for a particular chase scene, which in the end, remains its most influential highlight.
With word of a massive heroin deal going down in New York involving some French men, Det. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) dives all into the case in order to cease this operation. Despite getting constant pushback from his supervisors, he and his partner, Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Schnieder) continue to uncover all the players in this very dangerous game.
A particular grossness and dirt underlie everything happening in The French Connection, done purposefully obviously to highlight the type of world these detectives operate in. A horde of detective movies will show the officers to be upstanding public servants chasing down despicable individuals. An overused concept shown with Buddy Russo, but not through the main perspective, Jimmy Doyle. Brash, unapologetic, and a smidge racist, he’s the cop that does not play by the rules and does not care who has a problem with it. His place of residence probably smells of unwashed clothes and barely has a working relationship with anyone other than Buddy. Doyle instantly becomes the more interesting character to follow, but this film runs into a few pitfalls that will never allow me to fully enjoy it.
One area where this appears comes in the pacing of the story. Many moments throughout the telling of this narrative felt uneven in the building of the stakes and how it continued to further demonstrate Doyle’s progression as a character. Doyle reaches a level of brashness with his character that I no longer truly cared whether he got through this journey and busted the French men in this drug deal. The way he handles himself takes away from the content of the story when this man remains the focal point. While, as a character, he provides more intrigue than Buddy, the latter allows everything to flow through him rather than being the focal point. While some might see this as a minor nitpick, it ultimately harms the narrative in creating enough of a blurred line between the bad guys and the person we’re meant to support. The hints of racism coming from Doyle certainly do not help the case and this personally did not vibe with me.
Heading into viewing this film came with the major promise of the car chase. Whenever someone thinks of this film, it usually comes with knowing it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the epic car chase sequence. With several aspects of this film disappointing me, I can confidently state, this area certainly did not. Exhilarating from beginning to end, culminating in the famous image on the steps, everything happening in the car chase sequence defines cinematic excellence. Everything runs smoothly with the narrative stakes at hand and the pressure of Doyle chasing down this subway train while also driving through the busy streets of New York. Plenty of pressure occurring there and the visceral filmmaking involved puts the audience right in the passenger seat to see it all happen. Combining a healthy level of stress and directorial ingenuity, it makes sense why this scene has inspired many others and the imitations have mostly failed in their attempts to emulate it.
The issues personally held by me towards a character like Doyle probably speak to how well Gene Hackman portrays the character. This level of brashness comes so easily for this iconic actor as he delivers some tremendous work, but I would love to provide some love to Roy Schnieder. Mostly the “clean-cut” guy in this story, he manages to create a level of comfort in the spaces he occupies. He allows the edges to be a bit less spiky with Doyle along showing his very own skill in the process. Schneider runs with the trope and creates a heartfelt character, but even his brilliance could not ultimately save everything occurring with Doyle as a character for me.
For its filmmaking craft and abundance of influence it has inspired, The French Connection lands as a movie I ultimately respect but could never truly like. A bit too rough around the edges with its protagonist and a story that has its peaks and valleys in its narrative, it becomes difficult to watch at times, but then comes on the chase scene. Something so singularly fantastic that I could not possibly give the film a negative grade.