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Home » Culture and Criticism

The French Connection: Le thrill of le chase

Submitted by on June 1, 2015 – 8:56 AM8 Comments
Photo: Fox / Getty

Photo: Fox / Getty

The French Connection has kept itself in the classic-films discussion for the better part of five decades based on a single car chase.

Before last weekend, I’d never seen either the entire movie or the entire chase, just snippets of the latter during gassy Oscars tributes to editing, or cars, or whatever. What would TFC have to offer a critic who strongly believes Ronin is the car-chase gold standard?

Plenty. The titular connection is to drugs, of course, and the greatest pleasure of the film for me is watching Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his beleaguered but game partner Russo (Roy Scheider) just work the case: sitting on houses, deploying a multi-ball approach to tailing a suspect. Said approach might have had better success if Doyle had removed his signature hat — Dirk and I grumbled some variation on “switch to a watch cap, boyo” a dozen times during that sequence — but the great thing is that the tail seems to unfold in real time, the cops burying their faces in papers, ducking into storefronts, and casually admiring produce so as not to get made. You get a wonderful sense of the city, its physical grit, the weirdly claustrophobic randomness of its dangers, and it’s fun to location-spot (Doyle and Russo catch up to a CI on a vacant lot/shooting gallery complete with symbolic burning trash that, according to Dirk, is now worth $30 million).

Imagine how a remake might treat the same police work. First of all, Doyle is kind of a racist and kind of a hothead; the screenplay doesn’t belabor that, but doesn’t sell it out either. That’s doing business on NYPD in the early ’70s, it seems to say. A 2015 project might take pains to iron that ugly wrinkle out of its lead. Second of all, you won’t see that Truffaut-esque “let’s just see where this goes” attitude towards the procedural aspects of the story. It’s going to get time-lapsed or montaged — and yet a 2015 TFC is somehow going to come in at 130 minutes, where the original lets the stakeouts and interrogations breathe, but still clocks in at an anemic-by-today’s-standards 104. It doesn’t try to be or do everything; it’s about cops trying to make a case against wily European smugglers, so it does that, and when it’s done, it rolls credits.

More on the ending in a moment; first, let’s talk chase. Ronin‘s is, I maintain, better — but I have zero problem with your disagreeing, because The French Connection‘s is amazing. …Well, not for vintage-American-car enthusiasts like my husband, who spent the duration peering between his fingers all “alas, poor Fairlane,” but it’s extremely effective.

The ending isn’t. It has all the tools, that long shot and Doyle disappearing out of it into a bright block of blue light, and then the gunshot. Alan J. Pakula would have gone to black there, let us wonder not just who got shot and maybe by whom but whether, in the grand crushing scheme of systemic corruption, it even matters if Doyle “wins,” even a little, even for a minute. TFC waits a beat, then goes straight into a Where Are They Now photo collage, with misspelled captions no less. Granted, it’s based on a novel I haven’t read, but the film may not know what its actual story is — that it’s about the detecting, not the detectives.

Hackman’s great, though, excitable and arrogant. So is Scheider, and while I plan to watch the sequel and see what Frankenheimer makes of Popeye’s long strange trip to France, Scheider isn’t in it, and the sequel should have been about him. “Nah, I don’t want a drink. …Okay fine, Campari rocks” contains a novel. A long one with a lot of stairs.

Should you make The French Connection? Yes. The trim running time, top performances, famous chase sequence, and window into the beautiful disaster of early-seventies NYC make it a worthwhile sit — even more so if you like procedurals that actually, you know, proceed instead of acting like every day on the force is a car-flipping shoot-out.

What is film fiber? It’s the movies I feel it’s necessary to have watched in order to participate in the cultural conversation. Canon, in other words, and whether it’s good or enjoyable isn’t the point. The point, as our exasperated sophomore-English teacher noted on the subject of The Scarlet Letter: “You can hate Pearl all you want, but if you can’t tell me what she means, you’re going to fail this class.”

For more bowls of Film Fiber, click the “Film Fiber” tag below.

Next up on Film Fiber, and I should note that these seldom remain accurate because I have an untreated queue-shuffling compulsion, but anyway, in theory it’s: Kubrick’s Lolita




  • Georgia says:

    Why that car chase is even crazier than it looks:

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    …Man. And having lived near the terminus, that kind of crazy driving is not uncommon nowadays, so…

  • Liz says:

    The car chase scene is crazier than you think! It was real! They never got permits to film or anything!

    I made the mistake of watching this movie when I was undergoing some medical treatments. I really need to watch it again. The car chase is about the only thing I remember. Why I didn’t just pick When Harry Met Sally for the umpteenth time is beyond me…

  • Sorry, and feel free to delete the above comment. For some reason, my computer was not allow me to post a comment before.

    Anyway, on to what I really wanted to say; for an actor who reportedly hated depicting violence on screen, Gene Hackman was really good playing violent characters. It’s not just how good a physical actor he is, it’s also the look he gives people, his voice, and above all that laugh, which can go from congenial to menacing and back again on a dime. Oh, and btw, the movie is based on a non-fiction book, not a novel, so I’m guessing the hat Hackman wears is something the real guy wore. Also, Fernando Rey deserves praise for his performance as the main bad guy, especially the little wave he gives Hackman as the train speeds away and Hackman is just let on the subway platform to fume. Finally, did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?

  • c8h10n4o2 says:

    My best friend owns her second ’71 LeMans in part because of this movie. Hackman and Scheider are amazing. This is easily in my top ten all time favorites.

  • S says:

    Is the TN book club still happening?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    That *would* be a good candidate, if we can find it.

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