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 industry—Grosso 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 station—we 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 characters—the 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 Claus—it 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 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 production—especially if it an intense scene—so 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 hat— very 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 hunter—always 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 perp—no 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 streets—what 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 they would have to go into the shoe store Popeye was standing in front of to warm up in between takes.
Number 3: Documentary Style.
On another level, the ‘French Connection’ seems to unintentionally refer to the influence that French filmmaking was having on the American film industry during the 60s and 70s. The Hollywood Renaissance was rooted in the principles of the French New Wave and Auteur Theory that had started a decade earlier.
Friedkin: “Then the next change in cinema was Godard’s ‘Breathless,’ which changed- À bout de soufflé—which changed the way films were made. All of a sudden, a guy could go out with a small crew, very few lights—or no lights—and shoot with hand-held cameras and tell a story that people would see in a theater and it was not formal in any way. It was informal. It was like jazz music. And that changed cinema to this day.”
Because the story was based on actual events, Friedkin wanted to evoke a sense of realism to the film. He had the actual narcotics detectives who cracked the case (Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso) working on the film as advisors and it was the cooperation of Egan and Grosso as well as their friends in the police department that allowed the film to achieve this level of realism.
Scheider: “And we just tried to make it as real as we possibly could. That was the fun of it. The fun of it was making it real. We had all those mornings of coming back from the night work and talking about these scenes and what was happening and what was being said and how could we say it more interestingly than what’s written in the script.”
Grosso has stated that the film is ninety percent accurate to what happened in real life. Egan and Grosso were on the set at all times making sure that the actors were following procedure and behaving as real narcotics detectives would. So, before every scene, Friedkin would ask Egan and Grosso if what the actors were doing was the right thing to do.
To prepare for their roles, Hackman and Sheider would go out with Egan and Grosso on busts and other police activities, which not only helped their performances but the story as well.
Scheider: “About two weeks we went out almost every night—Sonny and Gene and myself and Egan doing all the stuff that you’ve heard about. And then after we worked at night, we would report the next morning to the French Connection office and we’d sit down with Billy and transcribe everything that we heard or seen or experienced that night and we used it to create scenes in this movie.”
Hackman: “The sequence in the bar with all the drug users and pushers, I don’t think I could have ever done that scene if I hadn’t actually scene Eddie Egan do that.”
Hackman: “He went into a bar one night and he did the scene that’s in the film now where Popeye comes in and yells out, ‘Popeye’s here, get your hands on the bar.’ He did that, but he did it for real. I mean, there were real bad dudes in there. And so I could see that was possible. If a guy was tough enough, strong enough, a real police officer could get away with that.”
Egan and Grosso were also very well known in the NYPD and had a lot of their police friends work on the film. For example, in the scene where Popeye busts up the bar, all of the extras in this scene were played by actual police officers and it was the same for the first bar as well. And to add to the realism, some parts were played by people who actually worked on the case—most notably, the police mechanic who pulls apart the car looking for the heroin was the real mechanic who did this in the actual case. Similarly, in the scene where they test the heroin, this was filmed using real heroin and the real chemistry test that the police use.
Despite this being a studio picture, the budget was only 1.5 million dollars and they ended up going 300 thousand dollars over budget. Friedkin said that they agreed to do the film with a million and a half dollars knowing they couldn’t. So, they ended up employing a great deal of guerrilla filmmaking techniques as a way to deal with the budget, but also when they didn’t need to, so that they could keep the documentary style that Friedkin wanted for the film.
One of the crazier things they did was for the scene with the traffic jam on the Brooklyn Bridge. They didn’t have any permits to close down the bridge, so they just had some people intentionally stop their cars at the other end of the bridge and created a real traffic jam.
For the scene where Popeye follows Charnier into the subway, they didn’t have any permits or permission and they just had a small crew and a wheelchair for dolly shots. This way the shots also wouldn’t bee too smooth and would have that realistic hand-held appearance. And this sequence is something that actually happened to Eddie Egan during the case, most notably, the part when Charnier waves to Popeye. The real suspect waved to Egan letting him know that he knew he was being followed.
This scene was shot on a platform in Grand Central Station and since they didn’t have permits to shoot, there wasn’t any way to close off the location to the general public. Egan and Grosso got their friends in the police force to come and help manage the location, so they could shoot without too many interruptions. Now, because they were shooting the scene this way they didn’t use any special lighting or extras. Instead they shot the location more or less as it was and this was similar for many of the other scenes in the film. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t even a light attached to the camera in this scene because you would be able to see the glow as it moves closer to objects and glare when it comes right up to the train window.
In an interview with the International Cameraman’s Guild, Cinematographer Owen Roizman talks about shooting in low lighting conditions, he said: “When you were shooting commercials in those days, everything was high-key. We hardly ever shot at night or interior car shots. You never wanted to make anything look grainy, low-key or realistic. It was all stylized. In our early conversations, Billy said he wanted the picture to have almost a documentary look. He wanted it to be very real looking. I just started thinking about that and I decided to underexpose and force develop the film and then print it up. That gave a very grainy look” (International Cameraman’s Guild).
Back then pretty much all motion picture film stock was 100 ISO (or ASA), which refers to the sensitivity of the film itself to light. 100 is a low ISO, so it isn’t very sensitive and therefore, you need a lot of light to get a proper image. What Roizman did in situations with very little light was to either, in the developing process, ‘push’ the film to be brighter than it normally would be or use a film stock that had a higher ISO, which hadn’t been done before on a studio film (Roizman Interview). And the higher the ISO, the more grain there is, which is why The French Connection has a really gritty look and feel to the film.
At this point, Friedkin had a background in documentary filmmaking and he took his experience capturing events as they happened and applied it to The French Connection. Friedkin almost never did more than one or two takes for every shot, which helped with the feeling of spontaneity and realism. This wasn’t just tricky for the actors, but the crew as well. Friedkin didn’t storyboard his shots and, to take it even further, he often didn’t rehearse the scenes with the crew. He would run through the scene with the actors without the camera crew on the set and have Roizman light the set as if the action could take place anywhere in the room.
Friedkin: “So, and then the camera operator was a guy named Ricky Bravo who had photographed the Cuban revolution at Castro’s side. He was in the mountains with Castro when they came down and took Havana and he was a great documentary cameraman and so, I used to say to him—he had a very thick Hispanic accent—and I’d say, ‘Ricky don’t stop the camera no matter what happens.’ ‘Okay, okay, chief.’ I said, ‘Don’t stop, just keep going.’ And very often we would do a scene like that where he had no rehearsal. He just had to follow the people as best he could and at the end of a take, I’d say to him, ‘So how was it, Ricky?’ and he’d say, ‘It was all completely blocked. I couldn’t see anything.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ He said, ‘You told me not to stop!”
Roizman’s goal was to light the scenes in such a way that they didn’t look lit. He would base his lighting set-ups on a practical light—a lamp or whatever source light was in the room—and then light the scene as if that was the only light in the room, which worked perfectly to fool the audience into thinking that the scenes were shot with whatever light was available.
Roizman said, “We sometimes shot in available light and low-key situations, and stretched the exposure latitude of the film. Everybody thought I shot The French Connection in available light. I always joke and say yes, I shot in whatever light was available from the truck. The goal was to make it look like it wasn’t lit, which was a radical notion in those days” (Roizman Interview).
Friedkin encouraged improvisation wherever he could and nearly all of the surveillance scenes were improvised. Part of what makes The French Connection such a realistic portrayal of detectives working a case is that it shows the downtime and waiting involved in watching or tailing a suspect. For these scenes, Friedkin would break them up by shooting them in between other scenes whenever they found a good location to shoot in.
Roizman attained the moody feel of the night stake-out scenes in the car by experimenting with lighting set-ups in his dark garage. You can see how some of these low-light scenes feel totally realistic while the subjects still maintain plenty of definition.
In a separate article for Panavision.com, Roizman talks about shooting the scene where Popeye talks to the informant in the bar’s bathroom. He said, “There was one light bulb; we changed the bulb, used some hairspray to tone down the hot spot on it and shot with just the one light…. In the bar area, there was a row of lights over the bar, but it wasn’t enough to get a proper exposure, so I simpl[y] added some extra bulbs to the existing ones.”
The article goes on to say that “[t]he film stock they used was a slower film stock, Kodak 5254, and Owen underexposed it.”
Roizman says this was [quote] “because I wanted it to look gritty, and it created the look I wanted. Fortunately, nobody questioned me. I did what I felt was necessary – it was a style I had in mind – and I baked the look into the negative, so there was very little extra information that could be pulled from the shadows.”
This was to ensure that the look of the film couldn’t be altered when it reached television and other mediums.
Some other noteworthy films to use Kodak 5254 are The Godfather, Barry Lyndon, Cabaret, and Bound for Glory.
A lot of sequences rely on the tempo of the action. All the characters are constantly up to something. Charnier and the other antagonists are always on the move and Popeye and Cloudy watch and follow to keep up almost like a dance. This is where the brilliant editing comes into play. Friedkin said that he wanted the film to “dictate its form” to him, so he was open to any and all ideas from editor Gerald B. Greenberg whether or not it was dictated in the script. So in a way, the editing of the film was treated more or less the way you would assemble a documentary from raw footage. And the results were sequences that flow beautifully. Watching and tailing suspects has the potential to be very boring, but we the audience are constantly getting new visuals to follow ourselves. For example, in this clip, we cycle between four good guys and three bad guys. We become more involved with what is going on because we feel like we are keeping track of everyone just like the police are. It also builds up the audience’s spatial awareness by expanding the scene outward, inviting the city to play a bigger part than if we had one cop following one suspect.
The French Connection is one of those films where everything just perfectly came together and is as much a part of American history as it is a part of cinema history. The cooperation of the real-life subjects of the film and their friends in the NYPD combined with a hungry cast and crew (many of whom were fairly new to feature films) provided a new and fresh perspective that has since become a preserved slice of 1970s New York City and a well of inspiration that filmmakers continue to return to.
Thanks for watching! The location video should be up soon, so stay tuned for that one. If you would like to help this channel grow, you can support me on Patreon. Any pledge you can give would be greatly appreciated. And if you’re new here, please hit that subscribe button now because there are plenty more videos on the way for cinephiles like you. Thanks again for watching!
Cinephilia & Beyond: http://bit.ly/1LrJwoe
The French Connection [Blu-ray]: http://amzn.to/1LrJTzb
CPH PIX William Friedkin Masterclass: http://bit.ly/1Ok2WjA
William Friedkin on the Car Chase Scene In THE FRENCH CONNECTION: http://bit.ly/1NI9eXl
William Friedkin on Documentary Style: http://bit.ly/1SafCKN
Master Class of William Friedkin: http://bit.ly/1I2Bis3
Interview with Owen Roizman by the International Cameraman’s Guild: http://bit.ly/1PRJ60O
Owen Roizman Panavision Interview: http://bit.ly/1PFtyyG
“Main Title” by Don Ellis
“RSPN” by Blank & Kytt (https://blankkytt.bandcamp.com/)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
“Backed Vibes Clean” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.