Study Guide

The French Connection

The French Connection Introduction


Release Year: 1971

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama

Director: William Friedkin

Writer: Ernest Tidyman, Robin Moore (novel)

Stars: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey


Already blown through all seven installments of The Fast & the Furious franchise and still thirsting for speed? 

We suggest taking in car chase cinema's granddaddy supreme: The French Connection.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1971 and set on the gritty streets of pre-Giuliani NYC, this movie follows a Brooklyn detective named Popeye (Gene Hackman) hoping to make a big drug arrest after hearing that a big heroin shipment is coming over from France. This entire movie is one long chase sequence, as Popeye and his partner follow hunches and clues all over the city, often tailing the bad guys behind the wheel and on foot.

But the most famous chase—the thing that really put The French Connection on the map—comes when Popeye grabs a random person's car in hot pursuit of a criminal who has hijacked a New York City subway train. 

Yep, we're looking at a seven-minute car vs. train chase.

The French Connection may be light on special effects, but it pushes real-world resources right to the edge.

And that sweat equity paid off, when its makers turned a 1.8 million dollar budget into over twenty-five times that in box-office sales. Plus, it won producer Phillip d'Antoni an Academy Award Best Picture, a Best Director for William Friedkin (whose next film would be The Exorcist), and a Best Actor for Gene Hackman, along with a Best Adaptation and a Best Editing. 

Not too shabby for a movie who's idea of high fashion is a Heisenberg-esque pork-pie hat.

But in case you don't like car vs. train chases or Academy Award winning epic movies (in which case, what movies do you even like?!) there's another reason to watch this film: it's all based on a true story. Yup; it's all chronicled in a book (also called The French Connection) written by author Robin Moore about the then-biggest heroin bust in the U.S.

Known best for his work about war, law enforcement, and the drug trade, Moore put together his narrative-style book using interviews, police documents, and exhaustive fact checking. 

No awesome car vs. train chase sequences, but we'll take it.

What is The French Connection About and Why Should I Care?

How do you feel about epic car chases? You love them? Watch The French Connection.

How do you feel about gritty cop dramas? You love them? Watch The French Connection.

And how do you feel about anti-heroes that make Tony Soprano and Walter White look like goody-goodies? You love them? Watch The French Connection.

But even if you don't like those things (in which case, check your forehead. Are you feeling okay? What's wrong with you?) this movie is still totally worth settling in for. It's remained a classic since it hit the cinemas in 1970, and is now a kind of early-70's period piece, showing us a time where heroin flooded the New York streets nearly unchecked, and cops screamed, yelled, and roughed up pretty much anyone they wanted to.

Twenty years before Rodney King, and forty years before the police brutality watershed moment of the 2010's, French Connection cops carry themselves with a very different kind of rep. It's a world where racist and sexist epithets get thrown and no one bats an eye.

And can totally be uncomfy for a modern viewer… but that's kind of the point. We're not supposed to root for racist powder-keg Popeye Doyle: we're supposed to be riveted by what a thoroughly nasty dude he is. He's supposed to be a "good" guy, but Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle is no sweetie pie. Instead of getting power from spinach, he gets it from booze and he has weakness for dames in boots.

And the "bad" guys that Popeye & Co are fighting? Sure, drugs are against the law and perpetuate systems of oppression and poverty. But these dealers are slick and fun, and hang out in high-steeze suits and pretty cars.

This ethical gray-space, where viewers can switch allegiances from cop to drug dealer, from American to French, and from scene-to-scene, is part of what makes this movie so perversely fun to watch. It's an antidote to Batman, Superman, Ironman—all those dudes with their sure moral compasses and that fight on the side of right and only battle the baddest baddies.

In The French Connection, the good guys ain't so good, and the bad guys ain't so bad. And in that way, we think this movie is a lot like everyday life… with a few extra car chase sequences thrown in for good measure.

Trivia

Throughout the movie, Popeye asks suspects and criminals during informal interrogations, "You been pickin' your feet in Poughkeepsie?" What's up with that? The daughter of Ed Keyes, Robin Moore's author-collaborator on The French Connection book, revealed that it had always been something her father had said. "My father was always asking us if we ever picked our feet in Poughkeepsie," she said in an interview. Where he got it, though, we might never know.
(Source)

Chateau d'if, the island fortress where Henri Devereaux agrees to be in business with Charnier and Nicoli, is also the setting for The Count of Monte Cristo. Source)

Simonson is the real Popeye, and Klein is the real Cloudy. The two detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, whose work on the French Connection case was documented in the book, got to appear in the movie… and both went on to careers in film and TV. (Source)

Not only did IRL Cloudy Buddy Grosso play Klein in The French Connection, he also had a minor role in The Godfather, meaning that this dual-career dude managed to appear in two Academy Award-winning Best Pictures in his 10-credit run as an actor. Now he sticks to behind-the-camera work as an executive producer. (Source)

The Europe-based clothing label French Connection was started in 1972, a year after the release of the movie, after a British businessman met a French designer. He doesn't have any particular comment about its, um, connection to the movie. (Source)

The French Connection Resources

Websites

The Script
For those confused after watching this movie, the script will fill in some of those narrative holes. A lot—and we mean a lot—was cut.

The Gene Hackman Homepage
An A/V librarian puts his professional skills to good use.

"Dedicated to All Things Gene"
A Tumblr with lovingly curated images, surveying nearly every part of his 90-film career.

Book and TV Adaptations

Popeye Doyle
Modern Family's Ed O'Neil takes a turn in Hackman's role in this TV movie.

The Seven-Ups
Cloudy gets his moment in the sun in this 1973 flick.

The French Connection II
Popeye heads to Marseille to see if he can track down Charnier, wears an assortment of fabulous Hawaiian shirts while doing so. Hello, 1975!

The Connection
A 2014 French film takes inspiration from the drug trade in Marseille, and directorial clues from classic American action-dramas. (Charnier lives on!)

Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of "The French Connection"
Sonny "Cloudy" Gross hosts a 30th anniversary special.

The Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Tracing The French Connection
The BBC offers its own look into the making of the classic.

Articles and Interviews

The Anatomy of a Chase
Action Magazine breaks down... the action, shot by shot, screeching wheels by screaming ladies.

Roger Ebert Talks to Gene Hackman About the Real Popeye
It didn't go so well for him, at first.

"William Friedkin and the Art of Immediacy"
The Dissolve presents a survey of this director's life and work.

"33 Things We Learned From the French Connection Commentary"
Those still thirsty for trivia should check this out post-haste.

"The Shock of the Old"
A Guardian article about the relevance of the film today.

Friedkin's Top 10
Learn what this vintage cinema darling likes to watch himself.

The MTA Guide to Filming Underground
Shooting a movie in the New York subway is a little harder than just buying a Metrocard and bringing a camera.

10 Differences Between the Nonfiction Book & the Hollywood Movie
It's not an exact fit.

Video

The OG Trailer
"Doyle is bad news, but he's a good cop."

The Anatomy of the French Connection Chase
It took two weeks to shoot.

Billy Friedkin Talks About Casting
He had no interest in Hackman.

Clip: Doyle Sits on "Frog One"
And has a "grape drink" too.

Audio

"Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon"
Yes, even you!

The Full Don Ellis Soundtrack
Listening takes you straight to the old dirty streets.

William Friedkin Discusses His Biography
An interview with the director, who invented the chase out of thin air.

The Friedkin Connection
Another Friedkin interview, with an extra focus on his use of sound in the movie.

Images

The French Connection Film Poster
Seems like kind of a spoiler alert. Or maybe they didn't have those in the seventies?

Popeye Takes a Ride
Here's a behind-the-scenes shot that reveals the necessary inconveniences of shooting in a car.

Popeye in Modern-Day NYC
His stride still fits right in.

Brennpunkt Brooklyn
The Germans called it Focus Brooklyn.