Study Guide

The French Connection Screenwriter

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Ernest Tidyman

Committed to Print

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.

With a Little Help from Shaft

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.)

Words Into Pictures

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.


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.

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