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  • Smack dab in the middle of the Hollywood Renaissance, William Friedkin's 1971 police thriller

  • titled The French Connection captures the gritty reality of a true crime story like

  • few films can. Over the years, detective films have certainly not been in short supply. Today,

  • we take an in-depth look at what The French Connection teaches us about filmmaking to

  • see if we can figure out why it always seems to tower above the rest.

  • The French Connection was adapted from a non-fiction novel that recounts a real narcotics case

  • that took place between 1960 and 1962 in New York City. The film was released on October

  • 9th, 1971 to great acclaim and ended up winning Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing,

  • Best Actor, Best Director, and was the first R-rated movie to win Best Picture at the Academy

  • Awards (wiki). The story follows detectives Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle and Buddy 'Cloudy'

  • Russo as they try to find a large heroin supply being snuck into New York City from France.

  • The characters Popeye and Cloudy were played by Gene Hackman and Roy Sheider respectively

  • and they were based on real detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso who actually have small

  • roles in the film. Grosso plays Klein and Egan, with a speaking part, plays Lieutenant Simonson.

  • After leaving the police force, both Grosso and Egan went on to have careers in the entertainment

  • industryGrosso became a technical advisor and a film and television producer for everything

  • from Night Heat to even Pee-wee's Playhouse. He also continued to act in small roles including

  • a police officer in The Godfather and Detective Blasio in Friedkin's 1980 film Cruising.

  • Eddie Egan became a sort of celebrity because of his fearless brazen attitude and his extremely

  • large amount of arrests and acted in several movies and TV shows during the 70s and 80s.

  • Sonny Grosso: “The French Connection meant: there were street connections, there were

  • Spanish connections, there were Black connections, there were Italian connections; the ultimate

  • connection in the drug world was the French connection.”

  • So, what can we learn?

  • First, Character Introduction.

  • The characters in The French Connection are introduced in a very exciting, eloquent, and

  • economic way. William Friedkin was quoted saying, “I have a theory about thrillers.

  • If you open with a murder in the first two minutes, the audience will hang around for

  • 15 minutes of exposition without getting bored,” (Film Quarterly) which is utilized here, but

  • our heroes are also introduced in an exciting way. The first time we see Popeye and Cloudy,

  • they are about to make a bust. We don't see their home life, getting ready for work,

  • or hanging out at the police stationwe are immediately thrust into the action. They

  • are cops; the film is about busting drug dealers, so why not introduce them busting a drug dealer?

  • This goes for the introduction of all of the main charactersthe classy French antagonist

  • classes it up, the killer kills, and the cops bust.

  • Action films often start out with an action setpiece of some sort with little weighing

  • on the plot, but what The French Connection does is offer up just a short foot chase for

  • action. This is brilliantly done because it isn't meant to be sheer spectacle. What

  • it does is it gives us a chance to see how well Popeye and Cloudy work together and sets

  • up the interesting details of the job as well as the little quirks they both have.

  • Every single choice that is made in this opening sequence sets up the characters including

  • everything from dialogue to wardrobe and setting. The first time we see Popeye, he is dressed

  • as Santa Clausit shows us that he is a little 'out-there,' but it also shows

  • us that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get his man (including running around dressed

  • as Santa) and the image of Popeye chasing a drug dealer down the street in the Santa

  • outfit is a memorable way of doing that. You won't see any other officer in the film

  • do anything similar.

  • What follows is a short interrogation scene in an empty lot, which was actually the location

  • of the real Sonny Grosso's childhood home. In the screenplay, this scene takes place

  • inside Popeye's car, but this was changed to a much more intriguing location that is

  • in keeping with the gritty presentation of New York City. It almost conjures images of

  • bombed out buildings in Europe during World War II. This scene could just as easily taken

  • place down at the precinct in an interrogation room, but instead it is on the street, which

  • shows us that Popeye and Cloudy are more comfortable out on the streets of the city. They aren't

  • eager to get back to the safety of the precinct. They are unafraid of the jungle that is New

  • York City. And we'll see how this mentality affects their decisions throughout the rest

  • of the film.

  • The production hired the writer of Shaft who adapted the screenplay for a small amount

  • of money. The script also contained fairly different dialogue in this scene except, of

  • course, for the Poughkeepsie exchange.

  • Friedkin: “The Roy Scheider character, Buddy Russo, would always ask the suspect specific

  • questions about specific things while the Eddie Egan or the Popeye Doyle character would

  • ask him non-sequiturs like if he ever sat down on the edge of the bed and picked his

  • feet. And so the suspect was caught in the middle between these two techniques. He was

  • more afraid to answer Doyle's nonsensical questions than Russo's questions that made

  • sense because he didn't know really how much trouble he was in.”

  • Hackman: “I heard Eddie do the 'do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie' thing a

  • number of times when we were out in the streets in Harlem and all over the place. And I never

  • understood it and people on the street to this day come up to me and ask me if I pick

  • my feet in Poughkeepsie.”

  • Friedkin: “'Pick your feet in Poughkeepsie' was a phrase Eddie Egan used on almost every

  • suspect he ever interrogated just to unsettle them. It's just a non-sequitur to unsettle someone,

  • but it's asked very straight and forcefully and it's a very hard question to answer,

  • as you might imagine. And so it would cause the suspect to freeze up and wonder if he

  • had, in fact, done something in Poughkeepsie that he should be arrested for.”

  • However, the one who was really unsettled in this scene was Hackman who had a lot of

  • trouble roughing up the actor playing the dope peddler. The scene was shot in the first

  • week of production and they did 22 takes, but it wasn't working.

  • Hackman: “And so, I did, I went to him and said, 'I don't think I can do this.'

  • And to his credit, or maybe because he was in a bind, he decided not to let me go and

  • I will be eternally grateful that he didn't because it was certainly the start of my career.”

  • They went ahead and kept shooting the rest of the film and came back and shot this scene

  • much later when Hackman was in the right mindset to go through with the scene.

  • Scheider: “I mean, for instance, the first scene in the film, when we're chasing Alan

  • Weeks and we're slapping the hell out of him in that alley, well, that was the first

  • day of shooting and Gene and I were not very good. We weren't very convincing. We just

  • didn't have the fluidity and the speed and the routine of a 'good cop, bad cop'

  • We didn't have it down yet. So Billy said, 'alright, look, we'll scrap this. We'll

  • come back at the end of the movie and we'll do this. We came back and we did it in an

  • afternoon. It was a piece of cake, but by that time, we felt like cops.”

  • This seems like good advice. Much of a film hinges on the character introductions and

  • it might be a good idea to shoot the first scenes later in the productionespecially

  • if it an intense sceneso that the actors have had more time to better get into the

  • rhythm and mindset of their character.

  • This scene introduces Popeye's anger and really relies on Hackman's ability to convey

  • the motivation Popeye has to catch the bad guys and get the information he needs to make

  • a big bust.

  • Friedkin: “I knew that he hated his father, so in order to produce anger in him, the anger

  • that was necessary for the character, I became like a harsh father. And so, the point of

  • that story is that, with every actor, the director works like a psychologist.”

  • So in a sequence lasting less than five minutes, we get a perfect introduction to Popeye and

  • Cloudy's working and personal relationship, what their motivation is, and the lengths

  • they'll go to complete their goal.

  • Number 2: building a character externally.

  • A character isn't just confined to the actor and the words on the page, it extends way

  • beyond that. We talked a bit about what wardrobe says about a character, but let's go even

  • further away from the physical embodiment of the character. For instance, Friedkin mentioned

  • that he chose Popeye's apartment building because it kind of looked like a prison.

  • Occasionally Popeye will toss a white straw hat in the back seat window of his car signifying

  • to other officers that they are undercover and on duty. I believe this hat was a nod

  • to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was released a few years earlier. In Butch

  • Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the outlaws are chased by a determined lawman named Joe

  • Lefors who would stop at nothing to catch them. In the film, he is recognized by his

  • white straw hatvery similar to the one used in The French Connection. Popeye is also

  • incredibly determined and relentless to catch the bad guys and this visual nod does a great

  • job regardless of whether it is noticed.

  • The cold says a lot about world that Popeye inhabits. New York City itself feels hostile

  • and uncaring in the French Connection and, for Popeye specifically, it seems as though

  • he is navigating a harsh world where there isn't any protection from those who live

  • outside the law. As it turns out, this aspect was a lucky accident.

  • Friedkin: “By the time the studio said, 'okay, make that film,' all of the guys

  • who said, 'go make it' were fired. If I had waited another month it would have never

  • have been made. So when we made it, it was the coldest winter on record in New York City

  • and it was literally freezing cold and that's when we had to make it.”

  • Popeye also has a bit of a fetish for girls in tall boots, which is briefly set up once

  • and then later we see him intrigued by a girl wearing boots who's riding a bike. This

  • adds to the characteristic of Popeye being a hunteralways watching and waiting to

  • pounce on his prey.

  • The aspect I really want to talk about is motivated action. The reason why the car chase

  • in The French Connection is considered one of the greatest in cinema history is that

  • it reveals more about Popeye's character than anything else in the film and yet, it

  • is an action-packed setpiece. Nowadays, it seems big spectacular setpieces only go as

  • far as furthering the plot and often not even that. What The French Connection does is it

  • uses the chase scene as a literal and metaphorical representation of Popeye's obsession with

  • catching the perpno matter the cost. People's lives are at risk, but still he is determined

  • to let nothing stand between him and catching this man. In a way, the chase is a metaphor

  • for the dynamic between the police and the criminals responsible for perpetuating the

  • drug epidemic. These criminals literally have the higher ground, able to coast along while

  • Popeye must stay grounded dodging a multitude of obstacles in his path just to keep up,

  • and the only way he can catch up to his man is to break the rules that the criminals aren't

  • obligated to follow.

  • The chase (and the sniper) didn't actually appear in the script initially and Friedkin

  • said that the original script had everything you could want from a police thriller except

  • a big setpiece like this. Friedkin had the same people who made the famous chase scene

  • for Bullitt and wanted to do something different.

  • Friedkin: “I should tell you, the origin of the chase was, you mentioned Hickman and

  • Phil D'Antoni, they had done Bullitt. And I saw Bullitt and I said, 'I can't do

  • the same thing they've done. The've done the car chase about as good as it could be

  • done then, I've got to do something different.' And D'Antoni and I started walking the streets

  • of New York and while we were talking about what we could do, I hear the subway rumbling

  • beneath my feet. The idea came to me right off the streetswhat about a car chasing

  • a train?”

  • Another good example of this dynamic is the scene where Popeye waits outside of the fancy

  • restaurant. This scene builds upon the characters in such a way that shows that crime, in fact,

  • does pay and the police are burdened by the same civility that separates them from those

  • who break the law. A side note: it was so cold while they were making this scene that

  • the cast and crew would have to go into the shoe store Popeye was standing in front of to warm up

  • in between