Evil Ash checking in again.
It’s good to be back writing for you again after a brief hiatus to deal with the insanity of life right now. This will be the first installment in a six-part “looking back” series on classic, and in some cases, groundbreaking films, that are all celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year. I hope that you will enjoy these articles, share them with others, and – as always – leave your filthy comments in the Disqus forums!
1971. It was a different time 50 years ago. The streets of New York City, it’s people, and the atmosphere; it was a far grittier and seedier time than today. The now-deceased World Trade Center was only partially finished; the North Tower complete, and the South Tower, still under construction (more on this later). In the dead of a brutally cold winter in Brooklyn, our flawed hero – dressed as a disheveled Santa Claus – is talking to children and ringing his bell. A hotdog vendor nearby is serving customers. The kids sing Jingle Bells as Santa observes the goings-on of the Oasis Bar & Grill – a grungy looking Brooklyn haunt. Santa and the vendor give each other a look and head inside, and so our story begins.
William Friedkin’s (The Exorcist, To Live and Die in L.A.) 1971 masterpiece The French Connection is based on the 1969 Robin Moore book of the same name. It tells the tale of two New York City police detectives, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, portrayed by two-time Oscar winner Gene Hackman (Unforgiven, The Conversation) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, portrayed by 70s legend Roy Scheider (Jaws, The Seven-Ups). The timing was right for a film like this as in 1971 the “New Hollywood” was getting its mojo and starting to dominate the screen, and win the hearts of critics; as evidenced by films like the brilliant Harold and Maude, Peter Bogdanovich’s stunningly beautiful The Last Picture Show and Alan Pakula’s Oscar-winning Klute.
The French Connection, based on the real-life adventures of NYPD narcotics detectives Eddie Egan (played by Hackman) and Sonny Grosso (played by Scheider), tells the story of the largest heroin bust in the history of American law enforcement. In reality, the “French Connection” referred to what was a massive international heroin network, that was based out of Marseille, France, and run by the Corsican mafia. It was allowed to operate due to corrupt police, politicians, and even actors on both sides of the Atlantic.
The character of “Henri Devereaux” who is set up to take the fall for smuggling heroin into New York City (stashed inside the rocker panels of a Lincoln Continental Mark III) is based on Jacques Angelvin, a French TV actor, who was sentenced to 3-6 years in prison for his role in the real-life smuggling operation.
In the end, the “French Connection” was finally broken up due to the incredible efforts of French and American law enforcement. In 1967, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (later to become the DEA), declared that 75% of the heroin being shipped into the United States, was coming in via France. By the time The French Connection was released in 1971, heroin addiction had become a massive problem in the US, so much so, that President Nixon had declared – in a speech from June 1971 – that drug addiction was the United States’ “public enemy number one.”
Grosso and Egan eventually broke up the smuggling ring, and seized an astonishing haul of approximately 112 pounds of heroin, with a street value of over $32 million. When Friedkin began production in 1970, he hired Egan and Grosso as consultants on the film. They would spend their days on set in Brooklyn and then work the night shift. Grosso would later say:
“I used about 100 cops on the shoot, and Billy was great, letting me use whomever I wanted as extras. We’d shoot a scene with some cops playing bad guys in the day. Then I’d go back on night duty with the same cops, except we were now busting people for real at the same bar. As Popeye would say, ‘Alright, let’s hit ‘em!’”
The French Connection was initially rejected by every studio that Friedkin and Producer Phillip D’Antoni pitched it to – with some studios rejecting it multiple times. Finally, Fox’s Dick Zanuck and David Brown agreed that they would make it if it could be done for $1.5 million. With a deal in place over at Fox, Friedkin would have a whole new set of problems when it came to casting. Friedkin had wanted Paul Newman (The Sting, Cool Hand Luke) or Steve McQueen (Bullitt, The Cincinnati Kid) as his first choice for Popeye Doyle. He had also considered Jackie Gleason, Peter Boyle, Rod Taylor, and even NY Post columnist Jimmy Breslin (who had never acted before). Friedkin simply didn’t have the budget to pay these stars what they wanted. Also, Fox declined on Gleason, and Boyle turned the role down due to its excessive violence.
Below is a fantastic clip of Director William Friedkin, who discusses the films “shaky” look and naturalistic score, at an official Academy Event back on October 7, 2016, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater; hosted by filmmaker and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie:
With Friedkin “settling” on Gene Hackman (the 40-year-old actor really was only known for supporting roles in Bonnie & Clyde and Downhill Racer), he rounded out the cast with Scheider, Bill Hickman, Alan Weeks, Arlene Farmer, Marcel Bozzuffi and Tony Lo Bianco. Bianco’s “Salvatore Boca” was based on real-life gangster Pasquale “Patsy” Fuca. The casting of Fernando Rey as the main bad guy, French heroin smuggler “Alain Charnier” (loosely based on French heroin smuggler Jean Jehan) has now become the stuff of legend.
The casting of Rey – who is referred to as “Frog One” throughout the film – was strictly an accident. Friedkin had seen 1967’s wildly successful Belle du Jour, and had noticed the small but standout performance of a Spanish speaking actor. Friedkin did not know his name but was interested in him for the part of Charnier.
The casting director, instead of reaching out to Spanish actor Francisco Rabal, contacted – by mistake – Spanish actor Fernando Rey (French Connection II, Navajo Joe). When they finally got in touch with Rabal, they found he spoke neither French, nor English, and decided to stick with Rey. It was a good decision, as Rey’s performance is both suave and chilling; an iconic “bad guy” performance from the 1970s. Rey would reprise this character when The French Connection II was released in 1975 – a solid, and at times horrific sequel directed by John Frankenheimer. The scenes of Doyle’s kidnapping forced heroin addiction, and subsequent withdrawal and redemption, are stunning. Rey would later state to the New York Times in 1979:
“In the first film, my character was more exotic and successful. I also preferred it because it was the truth. The sequel was a little invention, but I think Friedkin was very brave, very free with the camera and made something unorthodox. It was very up‐to‐date in technique.”
With financing in place, and all the actors lined up, principal photography commenced in and around Manhattan and Brooklyn from November 1970 to March 1971, during one of the coldest winters in history. Watching the movie again all these years later, you can see Hackman and Scheider are constantly bouncing up and down and blowing into their hands from the brutal weather.
Throughout pre-production and during filming, detectives Grosso and Egan took Friedkin, Hackman and Scheider out into the field, to witness the jaw-dropping experiences that they saw on a daily basis as narcotics detectives in New York City. Grosso would go on to say:
“We took them into the heart of darkness—to ‘shooting galleries’ where addicts injected heroin. We’d kick in a door on 110th Street and Fifth and inside would be twenty people, some shooting up. Billy was shocked to see such desperation. He said, ‘My god, I only live a few blocks from here!’ Gene added, ‘It was a life changing experience. Roy and I watched, stunned by the enormity of what was going on and what these two detectives were doing on a daily basis.’”
Because Friedkin was so affected by what he saw, he wanted The French Connection to have an “induced documentary” feel ingrained into his film. He wanted the camera work to be fluid and constantly moving, thereby making it look – as often as possible – like the camera operators were witnessing – by accident – two detectives, working the drug-filled streets of New York. This was accomplished, in part, by incredible location scouting, and also by not choreographing the film’s shots. Friedkin would reflect later:
“In order to do that, from time to time, I would not rehearse the actors and the camera crew together…I rehearsed them separately.”
Gene Hackman, one of our greatest actors, was, at times, also notoriously difficult on set, and could be a handful to deal with. This was evident during the production of the film. Hackman spent a lot of time during production with detective Egan—the basis for Popeye Doyle—and he found this time rough, referring to Egan as “insensitive.” This was made worse by the fact that Hackman had to use numerous racial slurs (including the N-word) throughout filming. Hackman complained to Friedkin about this, who responded that this was part of the movie and to deal with it.
Scheider stated that throughout the production, Hackman had tried to make his character a little more relatable, and more likeable. Whereas Friedkin saw Popeye Doyle as a tough, harsh talking cop. A borderline racist who was willing to cross any line, in order to do whatever it took to close the case. Scheider further stated that:
“Gene kept trying to find a way to make the guy human, and Billy kept saying ‘No, he’s a son of bitch. He’s no good, he’s a prick.'”
Like so many great movies of the 1970s, the centerpiece of The French Connection is the 5-minute car chase scene; arguably one of the most stunning car chases in film history. Doyle’s character liberates a 1971 brown Pontiac LeMans to chase down an elevated subway train down the streets of crowded Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The chase was filmed without obtaining the proper NYC permits. Instead, members of the NYC Police Department helped with traffic control. The NYPD and production crew were able to clear traffic for approximately five blocks in each direction, at any given time.
In certain shots, the production would illegally continue the chase scene into sections of Stillwell Avenue – with no control over incoming traffic, and where the stunt drivers actually had to avoid real traffic and real pedestrians. The result of what was on screen is that many of the near-miss collisions were real, and not planned. The near-miss rundown of the lady crossing the light with the baby carriage was actually carefully rehearsed.
The chase ends with Popeye confronting “Nicoli” the hit-man, and shooting him in the back at the top stairs leading to the subway. This would become the movies poster image.
The ending of The French Connection is something that has been long debated and remains ambiguous. While many of the characters involved in the smuggling operation have been captured or killed, Charnier remains elusive, and Doyle chases him into an abandoned building. Popeye fires his gun several times into the shadows, only to discover – not Charnier, but the body of a federal agent, helping on the case. Unflapped, Popeye heads off into the dark, still in pursuit of Charnier. We hear a lone shot ring out, and the movie ends. The ending scroll states that Popeye didn’t catch Charnier.
So who was Popeye Doyle shooting at? Friedkin has stated publicly that he doesn’t know and that the ending is ambiguous and sets up the sequel four years later. Friedkin stated:
“People have asked me through the years what [that gunshot] meant. It doesn’t mean anything … although it might,” the director said. “It might mean that this guy is so over the top at that point that he’s shooting at shadows.”
The French Connection is a triumph of 1970s maverick film-making. It’s also – along with Taxi Driver – one of the finest depictions of New York City, as it appeared in the 1970s; dark, dirty, yet strangely exotic looking and enticing. You’d like to spend some time in the streets of The French Connection, just not too much time. Also, as referred to earlier, this film was one of the earliest to show the stunningly visual World Trade Center. The completed North Tower and partially completed South Tower are seen in the background during scenes that take place at the shipyard, following Devereaux’s arrival in Manhattan, as well as during the unloading of the car.
The French Connection was a critical and commercial success in 1971, sweeping up eight Oscar nominations, and winning five (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing). It launched Hackman’s somewhat struggling career, as for the next 30+ years he would be an A-list star that got movies financed and made; starring in classics such as Scarecrow, The Poseidon Adventure, The Conversation, a Bridge Too Far, Superman, Crimson Tide, Unforgiven – for which he would win his second Oscar – and so many other great performances. He would retire from acting in 2004, and at the age of 90 is still often seen riding his bike in New Mexico, where he currently resides.
Roy Schedier and William Friedkin both had their careers springboard off The French Connection, with Scheider having a titanic run in the 1970s; starring in Jaws, Klute, Marathon Man, The Seven-Ups, All That Jazz, Sorcerer, among others. Friedkin, after winning the Oscar, would go on to direct one of the most famous films in history, 1973’s The Exorcist, for which he was again nominated for the Oscar for Best Director. He had a good run, following that up with Sorcerer, The Brinks Job, Cruising, and To Live & Die In L.A. He’s still going strong today at the age of 85.
On a budget of $1.8 million dollars, The French Connection was a domestic and international hit, earning over $75 million worldwide, and spawning a mildly successful sequel, which saw Hackman returning, but Scheider opting out of. The French Connection was also the first R rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar (Midnight Cowboy in 1969 was rated X). The film today remains an edge of your seat action-thriller, that has one of the most influential car chases in cinema history. It’s anti-hero status and moral ambiguity make it topical and relevant 50 years later.
If you haven’t seen The French Connection, watch it now, you won’t be sorry. Just hang on to your couch during those exhilarating low-angle first-person perspective shots (see above photo) during the car chase scene. Much like the movie itself, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Next week…One is never too old to learn from a master, Mr. Kidd…
Sound off Outposters and let me know what you think!
Hugh “Evil Ash” Feinberg