In this film, cars play such a big part, it's difficult not to think of them as a secondary cast. Here's a short list of the more important players:
Each car represents some larger plot point, or something to learn about the universe of the film. But more than that, we wonder if the omnipresence of these four-wheeled machines say something about more conceptual about wealth and power.
Having a car, for the characters in this movie, seems to give them agency and freedom (though not freedom from surveillance); having a really nice car marks you out as someone to pay attention to, and not in the best way.
In The Driver's Seat, Sometimes
With all the attention Friedkin pays these cars, they feel hefty with psychic weight. That huge police auction lot full of desolate, half-working cars towed away from crime scenes or just abandoned? It's hard not to see that as a dense block of lost souls, not so different from the mean streets of Brooklyn in 1970.
Interested in a full run-down of every car with screen time? Oh hey, you're in luck. The good auto-philes over at the Internet Movie Cars Database (yes, that exists) have you covered.
Every time food crops up in this movie, it seems to be an opportunity for lightness or humor: a little decoration on an otherwise stark story. It also seems like Ernest Tidyman might have been a little hungry when he was writing the script: we can almost hear him thinking "Ooh, yeah: cars. Those are cool. So are drugs. So are guns. And so is… food. Ugh, when's lunch?"
Check out the scene of Charnier disembarking from his motorboat onto the island at Chateau d'If for his criminal mastermind meeting. What's the first thing he does once he gets on solid land? Well, he scoops an oyster out of a little pool of water, and begins to shuck it with a pocket knife, slurping it as he conferences with his best friend/assassination-contractor Nicoli.
The easy correlation here is that this guy is a bad dude/gourmet, but to our eyes, it's a little comedic too. We mean, who just stoops down for a bivalve snack right before a business meeting?
For character contrast, let's remember Popeye as he stakes out Sal that first night, a little drunk and eating a soft pretzel while he waits. When he gets bored with that pretzel? He throws into the deepening darkness. (And you better believe our antihero talks with his mouth full.)
Elsewhere, food is a source of more blatant amusement, as when Charnier and Nicoli dine lavishly at a white tablecloth establishment, Popeye and Cloudy shivering across the street and forcing down slices of pizza. Something to drink? But of course. "Red or white?" Cloudy jokes, handing Popeye a cup. "What year?" he jokes back. (It's coffee, and it's so bad that he ends up pouring out on the street.)
For Popeye, food seems to be at best unfortunate sustenance and at worst a prop, as when he angrily chomps away on that plastic-wrapped apple, in hot pursuit of Charnier, trying to look so casual, but coming off as anything but.
And anyway, can you imagine him enjoying anything (but booze and women), the way Charnier enjoys that oyster? The presence of food in this film seems to say something about pleasure: the criminals have access to it everywhere—whether on a remote island, or pursuing the dessert cart—and cops, forever on the job, only eat to work, work, work.
Even though Popeye and Cloudy are on the job 24/7, everything that goes down seems to do so under cover of night. Or maybe that's they way all criminals do their thing? (We wouldn't know. Promise.) Characters are constantly clothed in shadow or entirely silhouetted. The shots become high-contrast, slices of light and deep folds of dark.
Even though, for instance, Popeye, Cloudy, and the full squad bust Sal et al. during the day, it's a cloudy winter day without much direct light. There's even more darkness once Popeye ducks into the abandoned building after Charnier and the murder goes down. (Bye, bye Mulderig.) Perhaps it's that darkness that allows Popeye to shoot first, and ignore Cloudy later. Or would he have done it on high noon under a million-watt spotlight?
Similarly, in the very first scene, the French detective follows Nicoli (to his own eventual demise), it's in broad daylight—however, the windy, slim little alleyways of Marseille are cloaked in shadow. And when the French detective is shot, it's done out of the sunlight and in the hazy, muddy volume of an apartment building lobby.
Sure, it would be easy to think about crime as darkness, and justice as light, but this movie seems to refuse such a pat interpretation. The sunniest moments happen when Charnier is swanning about in Marseille, giggling with his wife or shaking hands with Devereaux.
What do you make of such an inconvenient break in the light = good, darkness = bad archetype?
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Popeye, licking his wounds after a failed case and the death of another cop, is working with his partner to clean up the dirty, dirty streets of 1970's Brooklyn. He drinks to fall asleep, he drinks to wake up, he chases skirts, and hassles dime-bag hustlers for their last bit of speed.
A chance encounter during after-work drinks gets Popeye's gears going: a small-time crook seems to be passing out more cash than he should have. Shortly thereafter, he finds out from an undercover cop that there's word on the street that a big shipment of heroin is going to come through.
Even though his captain is sick of Popeye and his partner Cloudy's small arrests, he's also unsure about giving him latitude to go after this big a case, especially in the wake of the last failed one. Eventually, Popeye convinces him, and pairs them up with two Federal agents to see what they can find out.
It's time to get started on the case, but Popeye has been handcuffed to his bed by a playful one-night stand. Cloudy comes to the rescue, gets him straight, and later keeps the peace between his angry partner and the smart-alecky Fed (Mulderig) they're now working with.
Armed with the phone taps for the conspicuously-spending crook Sal, Popeye and Cloudy discover that he's working with a Frenchman named Alain Charnier.
In this flick, this stage is super literal: Popeye & Co work their butt off tailing Charnier and Sal, trying to figure out when and where the drug exchange is going to happen. They realize that a car, brought over from France by a movie star, has something to do with the case.
Though they've picked up all of the connections, Popeye can't exactly prove anything, and he doesn't have anything to show for the time and money he's spent with his cohort trying to get to the bottom of the case. Because of this, his captain takes him off it.
Popeye's disassociation doesn't last long: when a sniper shoots at him as he's walking through the park, it kicks off a multi-car-and-subway-train chase that lasts forever… or almost forever. At the end of it, Charnier's henchmen, the sniper, has been injured, and when Popeye gets him in his sights, he shoots him. Just like that, he's back on the case.
After patiently working for weeks on this case, Popeye, Cloudy, and the Feds are finally able to seize the car that has something to do with this big cross-Atlantic drug deal. They strip it down and find a bunch of heroin hidden inside of it. They replace it, and return the car, hot on the trail of the criminals.
After the Frenchmen and the New Yorkers finally make the drug trade, Popeye and Company catch them, cornering them near some abandoned buildings under the Roosevelt Bridge. They're ready to make arrests and reap their rewards, for all their hard work. Charnier, however, gets away inside one of the buildings.
Popeye, mad with vengeance, goes after Charnier, and shoots one of the Feds by accident. Unfazed, he continues on, and a gun goes off, off-screen. (Because this isn't a story with any kind of redemption, Popeye doesn't get "resurrected" here, as much as he gets to keep his job, kind of.)
Instead of showing us the lack-of-hero's welcome for ol' Popeye, the screen cuts to black. Likely this is because he hasn't changed, and won't be transformed. Rather, as we're told in the post-script, he and Cloudy are both transferred out of narcotics and reassigned.
It's mid-morning and Popeye is waking from a drunken slumber, pork-pie hat shielding his eyes from the week sunlight filter in through the bar windows. The radio has given way from music to commercials, and announcer says:
"Florida's Mackel Brothers invite you to join the great escape. You can say goodbye to air pollution, commuting, high prices, rising taxes, and cold, depressing winters [...]"
The contrast, as groggy Popeye makes his way from the dim bar to the cold grubby light of the Brooklyn day, is almost hilariously cruel.
Friedkin never shies away from making sure a homeless person is sleeping just beyond Doyle, or that piece of litter blows across the shot. As viewers, it seems like we're never allowed to forget the fact that this crazy chase movie is unfolding in a stylized-but-gritty NYC.
This New York is the world that artists and investors alike say they miss, when an over-priced natural foods store opens up on the site of a warehouse, or an artisanal wild-boar restaurant appears where there was once only a laundromat. But as The French Connection shows, maybe time causes some kind of romantic amnesia.
The 70s was a moment of recession, the Vietnam War was unpopular and stretching out without a clear end, crime rates were high and New York itself was in a crisis of government corruption and budget shortages. An estimated 200,000 heroin addicts in New York used drugs that traveled from the Middle East through Marseille and out to Harlem, and Brooklyn neighborhoods, just as it did in the movie.
All that being said, Friedkin shoots the city with a definite reverence—you can tell that he hearts NY. He practices tilt-shots up famous skyscrapers like the Pan-Am building, and shoots low and with a distant focal point, like into Sal and Angie's candy store.
As the city rises and spreads, and the cops tail their targets through the busy city streets, we get slices of life. Often, Friedkin wouldn't even get a shooting permit, preferring the organic atmosphere to anything they could stock with eager extras in costumes.
Interested in what's happened to the Brooklyn corner where Popeye wore that Santa suit, or Ratner's Deli, where Sal and Angie had their post-nightclub, pre-work breakfast? Check out this Big Apple-centric website for location, location, location.
You could be excused for not instantly knowing the context of the first scene of the movie, when Nicoli is followed by the French detective that he eventually shoots. (Dude's got a shooting habit.)
In fact, you could even be excused for not knowing the guy he shot was a detective. (We didn't, until we got our hands on the original script.) Sure, it's not necessary that you know all that, really, in order to plunge into the action. However, that baguette Nicoli plucks from the dead man's hands? That's how we know we're in France.
If we had any doubt, we have our French speakers later on, Charnier speaking to a dock boss. We're in France, and we're on the coast. We're in Marseille, the second largest city in the country, and in the seventies, the mid-point trafficking site for heroin moving west, courtesy Charnier's real-life counterparts. The city is host today to a major seaport, and at the time, criminals had a big slice of it.
Friedkin shoots the city itself a bit differently than he does New York, and that might be in part because of the pedestrian-only alleys and relatively short buildings. He goes for low-angles that accentuate the hills rising from sea-level, and wide shots that span several intersections at once.
Whether we're catching up with characters in the U.S. or France, the real dirty criminal activity seems to happen just steps from the ocean. We wonder whether this is a casual reminder that the Atlantic is the only boundary for drug-traffickers, or perhaps it's something more symbolic about the borders and margins of a city.
What do you think?
A few years ago, Friedkin wrote that "the best cops are the ones who can think like criminals; and there is a thin line between the policeman and the criminal that street cops cross every day." Thinking that about that slim little line helps out a lot when you're thinking about how The French Connection story is told.
While Popeye makes unethical decisions, like beating up perps and fudging the rules, Charnier tells Nicoli not to kill our hero. That can make for both a fascinating protagonist-antagonist confusion, and a storytelling technique that's able to follow both camps. As a result, there's none of the implied alliance we get in stories with clearer heroes and villains—we don't really know whether we should be rooting for the cops or the criminals.
And sometimes, because both cops and criminals get equal opportunities, we don't always know everything. For example, when Charnier and his buddies are whispering to each other in a hotel lobby or restaurant, we have to sit out with Popeye and his squad watching them from around corners and through plate glass windows. We don't know what they're saying—we only know that outside is cold, and inside is warm and full of awesome food.
Some of the story is kept from us, and we want to know why. Do you have any ideas? Why would Friedkin decide to keep that mystery, just when we've gotten used to feeling like we know it all?
We're using the term "thriller" here, not because The French Connection contains dancing zombies like a certain epic Michael Jackson video, but because it's more precise than "action."
Action's a huge umbrella term that can cover anything from The Terminator to Follow That Bird. In a thriller, we're more likely to wince at collisions, lean forward in our seats to see if the villain has drawn his last breath, and, generally, as the label so efficiently explains, be thrilled.
How committed was the production team to making The French Connection as thrilling it could be? Watch that six-minute-plus car-chasing-subway-train scene, and that's all you need to know. The streets weren't cleared of non-movie cars, but off-duty cops kept out pedestrians, and luckily no one was hurt.
Basically, The French Connection set a new bar for car-chase scenes… which are about the most thrilling thing we know of (unless there are zombies, obviously).
American New what, now?
You may have heard of the French New Wave (mais oui!), but what about the Yankees? We had our own New Wave, which definitely disrupted the motion of the cinematic ocean.
For U.S. film, the 70's marked a new era in Hollywood, creatively called "New Hollywood." They had seen work from across the pond, like Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave Breathless, and were beginning to think about the work in a new way.
So what did this new kind of wave mean for Hollywood? Basically it meant grit, grit, and more grit. Not only did this movement give us The French Connection, but it also gave us such feel-bad classics as Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde, and Five Easy Pieces.
If you walked into a room and your friend was watching The French Connection, you might be excused for thinking it was just some knock-around action movie with cops fighting against the tide of drugs… like every other cop movie that's been made in the last fifty years.
But if you stopped for just one more moment, you might notice the dark, bleak urban landscape, and the way that almost every set in the movie (besides anywhere that fancy-pants Charnier decides to spend his time) is full of tumbleweeds of litter and people who look miserable.
That, friends, is pulp noir. The movie isn't simply set in the bleak New York of the 1970's; it revels in it. It's both in love with the mess—like Popeye's junky apartment—and rejecting of it.
But merely watching this movie can sometimes make you feel like you need to go wash your hands before you have that afternoon snack. Especially if that snack is a piece of pizza and a cup of coffee.
This is a movie about a drug connection that's made through France. What more do you need?
Okay, we'll give you a little more. Just because we like you so much.
Just months before the film was released, Twentieth Century Fox did a bit of marketing research, and discovered that peeps assumed that "French Connection" either referred to a foreign film or a dirty movie. (Confession time, until we saw French Connection the first time, we figured it was foreign, too.)
Obviously, Friedkin told an interviewer, they couldn't call it "Popeye"—that is taken by our fave spinach-swallowing sailor—so the studio went for "Doyle."
Seeing the posters they'd made up, Friedkin met with his allies at the studio and eventually got the title reversed, even if the management remained sure that the movie would be D.O.A.
But as we know, it wasn't. And the rest is movie history.
Let's look into it a bit more symbolically: this movie's plot is all about Popeye and Cloudy being able to make connections—from Sal's easy spending ways, to the tip-off that a big shipment of heroin was going to be coming from France, to the strange appearance of a French movie star and the car he brought over from Marseille.
And in a movie that's big on action and stingy on explanation, as viewers, it's important that we make a few connections as well. As the camera goes back and forth between the cops and the crooks, we're slowly able to connect the dots.
There are three stages that we see when it comes to this shocking ending, so let's break it down:
The original script didn't include #3, preferring instead to leave us in the dark. (That would have been even more maddening, in our humble opinion).
But this ending is still pretty frustrating. What do you think happened to get Doyle and Rosso kicked off narcotics? Was it because Doyle shot Mulderig? Was it because Charnier got away? Was it (okay, it's a stretch) a promotion?
We'll have to wait until someone makes The French Connection II: 2 French, 2 Connection to find out.
In a post-Ferguson world, it can be difficult to watch a conflicted protagonist like Popeye rough up almost everyone he comes into contact with. He's suspicious, and what's more, he's often wrong (as Captain Simonson likes to remind him.)
He isn't shy of racial epithets, either. Meanwhile, there's the drugs, the bullets coming from every direction, and a pretty nasty train crash. So go into this movie with your eyes open, and remember that all protagonists don't have to be likable to get a story across.