“By the time a film of mine makes it into the theatres, I have a love-hate relationship with it,” claims William Friedkin. “There is always something I could have done to make it better.” But it’s hard to see how he could have improved upon The French Connection, his adaptation of Robin Moore’s non-fiction novel about Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, a racist, trash-taking New York cop whose unorthodox methods uncovered a French heroin ring.
Based on real-life drug-busters Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, Friedkin’s film was shot in a semi-documentary style that was as ground-breaking as it was at odds with his personal vision of cinema. Convinced that film really could change the world, Friedkin had started his career making ‘serious’ movies. But after the release of his fourth feature, the gay drama The Boys In The Band, the young artist received a call from the legendary Howard Hawks. “People don’t want stories about people’s problems or any of that psychological shit,” the creator of Rio Bravo and Red River explained. “What they want is action stories. Every time I made a film like that, with a lotta good guys against bad guys, it had a lotta success.”
So was The French Connection William Friedkin’s attempt to make a crowd-pleasing action picture? To a certain extent. These being the Vietnam-emasculated 1970s, the battle lines in the story couldn’t be drawn too clearly. Sure, foul-mouthed Jimmy Doyle carried a badge but he wasn’t above shooting a man in the back. But while the film ends with the apparent escape of drugs baron Alain Charn (aka ‘Frog One’) and Doyle’s execution of an FBI double-agent, The French Connection plays a populist game and doesn’t really deal with the questions of corruption and paranoia that came with the Watergate era. “What we were doing wasn’t making fucking films to hang in The Louvre,” Friedkin recalls. “We were making films to entertain the people and if they didn’t do that first, they didn’t fulfill their primary purpose.”
And entertaining The French Connection certainly is. Featuring career-best turns from Hackman, Fernando Rey and Roy Scheider (who went from character actor to bona star in the space of this performance) and a superb semi-improvised script, the picture highlights the drudgery of police work (the soporific stake outs, the hours spent eavesdropping on wire taps) while delivering all the prerequisites of the modern cop movie. This combination of social commentary and superb stunts comes to a head in the film’s most celebrated sequence.
It was producer Phil D’Antoni who came up with the idea of a car chase through the streets of Lower Manhattan. After all, a similar scene had worked very well in an earlier film D’Antoni had produced called Bullitt. Friedkin, who was still more interested in interaction than action, reluctantly conceded.
The car chase to end all car chases
That the sequence he captured completely eclipses Peter Yates’ effort has a lot to do with the authenticity that peppers the entire picture. The fact the city Hackman tears through looks so convincing is because Friedkin shot entirely on location. And while the majority of the driving was performed by stunt great Bill Hickman, Hackman also took his turn at the wheel. Indeed, it was with the leading man in the driver’s seat that Doyle’s car struck another vehicle and ploughed into a concrete pillar. Relieved to discover that his star was okay, Friedkin was then told that the tight schedule meant he would have to make do with the footage he already had. It says a lot for the way the director cut the picture that the botched footage he filmed was sufficient to fuel one of the finest action sequences in all cinema.
Just as amazing was the film’s performance at the Oscars, winning the awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Editing (Roy Scheider lost out to The Last Picture Show’s Ben Johnson in the Supporting Actor category). This success didn’t satisfy William Friedkin, however, who spent the day after the ceremony visiting a psychiatrist. “I was profoundly upset,” he remembers. “I told the shrink I had won an Oscar and didn’t think that I deserved it. It was not so much unworthiness I felt as much as I had a perspective: the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony, the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, I’ve never done anything like that.” It was atypical modesty from the man so full of hot air, he was nicknamed ‘Hurricane Billy’.