Philip d'Antoni, a director/producer just coming off the success of 1968's San Francisco cop flick Bullitt, was the one to bring director William Friedkin on board. They were racquetball buddies, and d'Antoni knew that Friedkin was looking for his first big commercial success. D'Antoni had just read Moore's book, and was pretty sure it would make an awesome movie. Friedkin read it, and agreed.
All the other stuff Friedkin had done before was personal, quiet, "arty," and dialogue-heavy. But at some point, he began to think about the fact that films that were chiefly action, light on the dialogue, could be understood and enjoyed anywhere in the world. Car chases: the true international language.
With this thinking, Friedkin and d'Antoni headed to New York to make a movie that was action, action, action, full of fast cars, and even faster bullets.
Once they hit New York, Friedkin and the crew set to work, improvising on the fly. They ran over their $2.8 million-dollar budget by 300 grand, but thankfully for the production team (and for Friedkin's career) the film was hit.
He went on to make The Exorcist, and be celebrated as one of the new lights of American cinema… as well as the guy to turn to if you needed to film a movie about a projectile-vomiting, demented little girl.
His career continued, riding the inertia of the American New Wave into a totally unpredictable filmography (from the dark revenge thriller To Live and Die in L.A. to a few episodes of C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation) seemingly bound only by one thing: main characters with a wavy sense of ethics.
Popeye Doyle would be very proud.
Journalist Robin Moore wrote more than seventy books of fiction and nonfiction over his long career. Just one of those books was the story of the then-largest heroin bust in American history, and the cops who did the due-diligence to make it happen.
The book, told largely from a third-person limited perspective, follows Narcotics detectives Sonny "Cloudy" Grosso, and Eddie "Popeye" Egan as they build the case against the Stateside gangsters and the French ones.
Moore's book went onto become a bestseller, and soon, courtesy producer Phillip d'Antoni and director William Friedkin, it was on its way toward that glamorous silver screen. But who would be the one to write script?
Ernest Tidyman, a former crime reporter with a ridiculous name (is he Mr. Clean's cousin?) was beginning to make his name as a freelance fiction writer with the Shaft series, chronicling the adventures of an African American detective who's smooth as James Bond and smart as Sherlock Holmes. The series went on to grace the big and small screens… complete with an awesome theme song.
When the galleys for Shaft crossed Friedkin's desk, the director was impressed with the grit and action, and the way that the novel seemed to catch the dark spirit of the Vietnam Era in America. He also liked the fact that as a journalist, Tidyman had been in touch with the reality of the streets—especially since Friedkin himself had started his own career as a documentary maker. Friedkin and d'Antoni paid Tidyman $5,000 to turn Moore's book into a feature film. (Tidyman would later win an Academy Award for this gig.)
Real life was messy, Tidyman decided, and it needed a bit of trimming in order to bring Moore's tale to the big screen. For one thing, the movie encompasses a couple of months, while the true story lasted a couple of years. It was a necessary compression. After all, they were making a feature film and not, say, a nineteen-hour Ken Burns documentary.
Aware that he was rebuilding a story from the pieces of real life, Tidyman took care explain events, deepen characters, and build motifs throughout. However, the intricacy was too much for this Hollywood chase-movie to bear, and much of this never made it into the final film.
Interested in a taste of what go left out? Here's one exchange of dialogue that didn't make the cut, where Charnier waxes poetic about a bridge with his wife and La Valle, the translator:
LA VALLE: The river at this point is the most dangerous on the East Coast. Years ago, hundreds of ships went down here.
CHARNIER: If this bridge were in Europe, it would be on every tourist's sight-seeing list.
LA VALLE: Most New Yorkers never notice it - most Americans have never heard of it.
CHARNIER: Look how gracefully they conceived that arch. Like a bowstring. It was built from both ends. With no support in the middle. Beautiful.
LA VALLE: Mmm.
MARIE: Alain is the only man I know who can become as enthusiastic about a bridge as he can about a woman.
CHARNIER: Not any woman, Marie. Just one.
Might it have been interesting to see Charnier's lyric love for public works? Yeah, sure. But hey—the movie is best remembered for car chases and bringing the porkpie hat back into style… not nuanced character.
Twentieth Century Fox is one of the biggest movie-making machines in the world, a Pepsi or Coke of popcorn experiences. But it started as an indie enterprise, when in 1915, the son of German-Jewish immigrants named William Fox decided to buy a nickelodeon (which, before it was a kids' cable channel, was a small storefront that showed film shorts set to music.)
By the '30s, the company had grown into a full-fledged production, distribution, and theatrical venue conglomerate, which was the usual model in pre-WWII Hollywood. (William Fox was eventually forced out, and died soon after.)
In the studio system of that time, executives and producers would sign performers, directors, and writers to contracts, and their work would in turn become part of that brand. In the '40s, '50s, and '60s, Fox made such classics as Christmas-fave Miracle on 34th Street and film-nerd, award-nominated delights like All About Eve, Zorba the Greek, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Despite these hits, 20th Century Fox was also making enough quickly-forgotten flops to chip away at the foundation of the company. The French Connection, though by all accounts successful both by public and critical standards, was just a drop of water for the very parched company.
The company wasn't the first choice for the d'Antoni/Friedkin/Tidyman team. In fact, The French Connection was turned down by six or seven studios before Twentieth Century gave it the go-ahead. Other execs thought the script was too "arty-tarty" and the two that finally accepted it said only, (according to d'Antoni) "Okay—go ahead."
Those execs were fired just two weeks after shooting was under way, but it was too late: the movie that some say changed cop cinema forever would be loosed on the world, even as the production company was reorganizing management (never a good sign) and doing its best to fend off another year of losses.
It would be nothing less than Star Wars that brought the company out of the hole, and the company's recovered riches made it a popular investment property, eventually attracting British media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the dude financially responsible for bringing Americans such beloved entertainment as The Simpsons.
The mega-entertainment corporation exists today with a crazy multitude of divisions, including one for films like feeling like indies but aren't (Searchlight) and one for cartoons like the aforementioned Simpsons and Family Guy (Digital).
Oh, we're not the only ones who noticed that it's a new millennium? No worries. In 2013 the company switched it up to 21st Century Fox, which will be good for at least eighty more years. And in 2100? By then it'll probably be all holograms and virtual reality, right?
The dusty dimness of a New York winter? Check. Hand-held cameras? Check. Camera fastened to cars on ad-hoc rigs, or on shaky cranes? Check. High-speed film stock to capture every bump and bruise? Check.
This movie was made to look realer-than-real, as the characters run up and down the streets of a long-gone era of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Jersey, and Friedkin seems to play with this sense of realness, and surveillance… especially when we see the way the shots interact with the characters.
From the beginning, we're with the French detective as he follows Nicoli, the camera moving just behind him as he slips down narrow alleyway and peers from around corners. We're robbed of close-ups, the cinematography instead favoring long-shots almost exclusively. In fact, we don't see anyone's face until Nicoli lowers his gun, and pridefully snatches the dead detective's baguette. (Seriously, what a jerk.)
By the time we get to the next scene, we're shocked or relieved—or both—to be more visually cozy with the characters. Charnier banters lightly with an employee on the docks. We're close, but not intimate.
And that pattern of far away-to-close-up-to-far-away continues throughout, whether it's Popeye's rough morning expression, or an overhead shot of all the criminals scattering as the cops rolls up to the drop site on Ward's Island.
Sometimes, of course, we get both. During the famous chase scene, we get both super-close ups and shots from very far away.
This starts with Nicoli's sniper attempts on Popeye. The assassin is on the roof, and so we begin with a bird's-eye of view of the detective whistling through the park, then running for cover as a woman with baby carriage falls dead to the ground. It isn't until Popeye is up on that roof, seeing spent shells and looking for where Nicoli might have gone, that we get close to him again.
For Friedkin, the action of the plot and the psychology of the characters seems to dictate how close or far the camera seems from story. This can lend itself to some super-interesting omissions and moments of privileged data: the story is told from the POVs of both the surveyed and the surveying.
For instance, we know the drugs are in the car, even when Popeye's starting to doubt himself. We also know, that despite the cops' best efforts, Charnier knows what's up, saying how "Boca sees policemen in his soup," and Nicoli agreeing, "He's not wrong."
The cops are keeping tabs on the bad guys. The bad guys are keeping tabs on the cops. And us? We're keeping tabs on all of them.
Composer/jazz musician Don Ellis was responsible for scoring the film, from the opening credits to the closing ones, with rumbling, slow percussion and low, mournful horns. Ellis began his career as a somewhat traditional jazz cat, playing for the famous Glenn Miller band.
But after traveling to Europe in the sixties, and discovering the progressive and avant-garde movements happening there, he began to compose and record independently, and his sounds became a bit more far-out.
The movie score, is, well, a little weird. The timing, marked by his background in ethnomusicology, is intricate and lurchy, making the score seem at times, as one critic writes "like a bad psychedelic experience [...] in a good way."
So what do you make of this strange, psychedelic score, when combined with such a harsh, tough story? We think it seems to make a compelling contrast, less underscoring or amplifying the story (as a traditional score would), than creating a sort of unstable atmosphere.
So even when Popeye and Cloudy are yawning in their car seats on yet another stakeout, the scene isn't ever boring. Instead it's haunting, tense, and even kind of funny. And that, friends, is the power of music.
The shiny, glitzy optimism of the Supremes-like Three Degrees couldn't be more different from the mood of the film at large. So what gives?
It's a very different contrast than what happens between Don Ellis' score and grit of the script. Maybe it's a nod to the slick glamor of Hollywood, or maybe it's a reminder that through all of Popeye's hard work and tribulations, other people are having lots of easy fun.