Think about cops in movies, and who comes up? If you're into musicals, maybe West Side Story's all-but-powerless Officer Krupke. Maybe you're more a slapstick Paul Blart: Mall Cop type. Or perhaps it's the knightly Bruce Willis in the classic action flick Die Hard who comes to mind.
No matter what boy-in-blue you thought of, though, you might notice that a perfect cop isn't a very popular choice for a movie character.
Why's that? Well, a perfect cop, or a perfect teacher, or a perfect housewife… or a perfect anything isn't very interesting to watch. We kind of hate characters that are flawless and pore-less, sweetness and light. But never fear: Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle is flaw-rich, and can be a pretty riveting watch.
Though the original tagline called Popeye is "bad news, but a good cop," we're not sure that exactly covers the full breadth and depth of this crazy-classic antihero. Now that the tagline mentions it, we're not even sure he was a very good cop.
Or, maybe it depends what your standards are? Witness Popeye roughing up civilians, making himself conspicuous ordering a grape soda while on Charnier's tail, or letting some hot chick use his Department-issued handcuffs for bedroom games. Is that good cop behavior?
Oh yeah: and let's not forget the endless spewing of racial slurs:
POPEYE: You dumb Guinea. Never trust a n*****.
CLOUDY: He coulda been white.
POPEYE: Never trust anybody.
Seriously, someone needs to enroll this guy in sensitivity training… or at least how-not-to-be-a-raging-racist-dirtbag training.
The movie isn't shy about letting us know that Popeye's made mistakes before. Both Federal Agent Mulderig and Captain Simonson mention a previous case, where Popeye got another cop killed:
MULDERIG: His brilliant hunches cost the life of a good cop.
We don't know how, or what exactly the circumstances were… but we do know that for Popeye, the ends justify the means.
The movie also points to those means paying off. "Your scrapbook's a mess, just like everything else in your life," Cloudy clucks, going through his notebook of newspaper cuttings that we imagine showcase past professional successes.
That's the thing: most of the time, Popeye's hunches are good. If he didn't have this rep in the force, and if he wasn't known for his blind doggedness and nose for crime, then Simonson wouldn't support him or get him warrants to keep working the case. Without Popeye's track record as a "good cop" within the context of the movie, there wouldn't be any plot at all.
In large part, this whole movie is powered by Popeye's rep for being a cop who gets stuff done… and by his almost psychic ability to tell when something fishy's going on. For example, remember when he just decided that the Lincoln Devereaux brought over from France was suspect? Yeah. He doesn't mince words:
POPEYE: That car's dirty, Cloudy. We're going to sit here all night if we have to.
Yup; that's it. A hunch. And he was so sure he was right, they spent all night just sitting there… and eventually found half-a-million dollars in heroin. Sure, why not?
And Popeye isn't just good with his weirdo hunches. He knows he's good with his weirdo psychic hunches. It's part of his whole thing. It's not so much that he's sexy and he knows it; it's more that he's a grizzled, violent, megalomaniacal cop… and he knows it.
Basically he buys into the hype surrounding his prowess. He buys into his own image. And his confidence—and his desire to keep his rep—works as a plot motivator. After all, you don't get into a car chase with a subway car unless you have something to prove. What does Popeye have to prove? Well, that he's still Popeye.
It's no accident that pop culture has given us only two antiheros that like to rock a porkpie hat. We have The French Connection's Popeye Doyle, and we have Breaking Bad's Heisenberg. Both are bad to the bone. Both of them are riveting. And, most importantly, both of them know that they're living legends.
But unlike the chicken and the egg, we know who came first: Popeye Doyle. Mild-mannered Walter White wanted the perfect accessory to transform himself into a force to be reckoned with, and so he borrowed from a character who is synonymous with "a force to be reckoned with:" Popeye Doyle.
So what makes Popeye the antihero to end all antiheroes? Well that moment takes place at the end, as he stands beside Cloudy in an abandoned building on Ward's Island, Mulderig shot dead by Popeye's gun. Cloudy, with his soulful brown eyes, looks on in horror.
"You shot Mulderig!" he tells his partner. But Popeye might as well be a wild predator with a rumbling stomach. He doesn't respond, saying only: "The sumab**** is here, I saw him!"
A lot has been made of likability and being able to identify with characters in movies and books. So what do we do with a character who doesn't seem to care if anyone likes him, or even gets in the way of his bullets?
Well, if we're Walter White, we borrow his style.
If Popeye is an antihero, is Charnier an anti-villain? Maybe. Don't get it twisted, though: Charnier doesn't mean well. He doesn't want to do good for the world. He isn't just accidentally setting up world-crossing drug deals and ordering hits. But with his lightness, style, and humor, we'll confess that sometimes it can be easier to get behind him than it can to get behind Popeye.
Think about how we're introduced to Popeye: a Santa-suited, pushy cop turning out the pockets of people minding their own business. Meanwhile, Charnier cracks jokes, makes people laugh, takes a fancy auto from a meeting at the docks to his beautiful mansion in Marseille.
There, he and his easy-breezy second wife exchange gifts for their upcoming trip to New York: for her, a camera, and for him, a wool coat to keep him warm. They seem happy.
Happiness! What a novel concept. Popeye, you listening?
While Popeye seems driven by some warped sense of duty, Charnier is a gentleman criminal, pursuing his drug plot in style. While waiting for Sal Boca and Joel Weinstock, he leads Popeye, Cloudy, Mulderig, and Klein around as if by the nose. He's no fool. He knows that he's attracting the attention of the boys in blue:
CHARNIER: I haven't spent five minutes in New York without the company of a policeman.
He's a smart cookie. Or, maybe because he's French, he's a smart croissant? Oh, and our favorite part is when he outsmarts Popeye by getting on and off and back on a train car, leaving the cop on the platform as he rides away, waving and smiling as he goes. And let's remember, too: where Popeye kills Mulderig and seem to think nothing of it in the moment, Charnier explicitly tells Nicoli not to kill Popeye. (That he decides to go after Popeye anyway? That's on him.)
After all, Charnier likes his crimes smooth and neat, with as few bodies as possible, while Popeye can't seem to stop making a mess with a body count.
Though it isn't explained in the movie, Cloudy gets his nickname from his real counterpart, Sonny Grosso, who was known for his pessimism. Cloudy? Sonny? Sunny? Get it?
We kind of do.
The fictional Cloudy is less pessimistic than reasonable. Just like Charnier, Cloudy's character gets much of his depth from his reactions to the force-of-nature Popeye. Just check out his calm reaction to Popeye's raging racism:
POPEYE: You dumb Guinea. Never trust a n*****.
CLOUDY: He coulda been white.
POPEYE: Never trust anybody.
Cloudy doesn't say, "Whoa, buddy. Don't say that," or "You jerk! Shut your mouth!" He just says "Meh. He coulda been white." Sure, it was the 1970's, but Cloudy just seems to shrug whenever Popeye does anything even remotely weird. Here's another prime example of Cloudy basically saying, "Popeyes will be Popeyes:"
CLOUDY: What for, you wanna play hide the salami with his old lady?
In case you've forgotten, this is when they're trailing Sal. It's not all business with these two, but it is all Popeye, all the time.
In fact, we don't know much about Cloudy at all, except for the fact that he's Popeye's more grounded partner, and that he's loyal to him, maybe to a fault.
After all, what would Cloudy's life be like if he wasn't spending months on the cold streets of Manhattan and in tiny basement rubbish rooms, trying to gather evidence for a crime only his partner believes in? (Um. Maybe it would be better?)
Popeye believes in himself, and Cloudy believes in Popeye. Cloudy fights the captain for investigative support, against the jabs of Mulderig, unlocks the man himself from his own handcuffs, always has his back. But a question worth asking is: why does Cloudy believe in Popeye?
The code of partners-in-arms can only go so far.
Sal Boca, "candy store" owner and small-time crook, is the very... American partner in this French-American crime team. While Charnier is upper-classy and smooth to a fault, it's Sal's maximalist love for spending money that first catches Popeye's suspicion. Seeing Sal making it rain on everyone in a nightclub, he wants to know,"Who's the last of the big-time spenders?"
How exactly Sal has gotten to this moment is a bit mysterious. In expository voice-over as Popeye and Cloudy begin their research, we learn that Sal at some point held up a Tiffany's in broad daylight, but Tiffany's didn't press charges.
In what situation would that happen, we wonder? Did Sal or his connections offer a bribe? A threat? Was Tiffany's just feeling nice that day?
We also don't where his money comes from. He has two cars, one in his wife's name, and one in his brother's, and owns a newsstand/"candy store"/coffee counter that makes, as Popeye tells us, "a fast seven grand a year." (That's about $45 grand in today's dollars.)
But with those fat stacks, all-nighters at clubs, and lots of unexplained errands? He doesn't do a very good job of hiding the fact that's he's got, well, a secondary source of income. And he's not known for being careful, even if Joel Weinstock—who's a much more seasoned criminal—reminds him that no one ever died from taking his time, Sal follows Charnier's insistence that the deal get done ASAP. Over-eager and flashy, Sal's the one who ends up dead while it seems like Charnier may have had a chance at escape.
But does all of this foolhardiness make him less sympathetic? More so? Just as Charnier softens his villainy with a little wave, the utter mundane domesticity of Sal and Angie preparing newspapers to sell tugs on our heart-strings a bit.
As Cloudy says, Sal's wifey is a "fast filly," which in 70s-speak means she keeps up with the boys, and supports her man Sal's criminal activities by car-switching and arm-candying whenever called for.
She also keeps the couple's candy store counter well staffed, flirting with the customers (including Cloudy, when he's undercover), and sometimes, just like all of us, gets a late-night craving for some pizza.
While not all of us like anchovies on that pizza, like young, beautiful, scrappy Angie does, we still admire her, somehow. Maybe it's her strength and street-smarts, maybe it's that crazy blonde beehive wig she wears when going out. Probably, though, it's the fact that she's the only semi-dimensional female character in this boy's club of a movie.
Lou, the blue-collar, less-ambitious brother of Sal, is a garbage man's apprentice when the film opens. If Angie is Sal's right-hand gal, Lou is his left-hand man, helping him launder money from less-than-legal dealings by holding one of Sal's car titles in his own name. He's the main man on the ground, biding for the right car at the police auction, and organizing the New York troops to help carry out this big-money deal.
As Lou and Sal hug joyfully, after what they believe is a successful trade-off with Charnier, it's hard not feel a little choked up. Sure, these are criminals, but they're also family, and as viewers, we're well aware of how doomed they are.
We don't know a lot about Alain's wife, other than the fact that she's deliriously happy with him, likes to shop, and is (probably) in on the whole plan.
We don't know a lot about Devereaux, except for the fact that he's a movie star with money trouble. And Charnier, like a cat with a mouse, pounces on him, using his celebrity cache to get the drug car from France to New York. When the press scrum asks Devereaux why he would take a boat rather than a plane, he's ready to answer, saying,
"The next several weeks will be very difficult and the middle of the ocean is the only place where the telephone isn't ringing all the time."
That seems to satisfy everyone, and Charnier has precisely what's needed.
But Devereaux isn't a hardened criminal like Charnier or even Sal. So when he has to make a case for getting back the drug car at the police lot, he loses his appetite for the caper, and tells Charnier he's out. Unfortunately for him, it isn't soon enough, and he pays for his involvement by serving four years in the Federal pen.
For the film as a whole, Devereaux is perhaps the cautionary tale, just a rube looking for some kind of shortcut and getting in too deep. Like Mulderig for Popeye, Devereaux is collateral for Charnier, who conveniently disappears just after the bust.
Klein is Cloudy. Or rather, Federal Agent Klein—the upright, dutiful gent to brassy, snarling Mulderig—is played by Buddy Grosso, the real-life Cloudy.
And, notably, the two roles are similar. If Mulderig and Popeye are the impolite fighters, Cloudy and Klein are the ones always looking for a little reason and balance in their partners' chaotic style.
As with the other minor characters, Klein works mostly as a plot device, like when he's tailing Charnier and Sal to DC to keep the boys back in the Big Apple abreast of the situation. He shows up when it's convenient and fades into the background when it's not.
The movie star's translator, and in on the whole deal, La Valle is good at putting on airs and sounding important as he and Devereaux do their best to get their hands back on the drug car.
La Valle seems relentlessly cool and French and cosmopolitan, showing Charnier around the auto-yards prior to the police auction, and at ease while translating for Devereaux at the pier-side press conference. But once they get the car back and it's transferred to Charnier, Devereaux says sayonara and we don't see him again.
In the original script, La Valle seems to be more of a "tool of information" type, telling Charnier all about Ward's Island, and showing him where cars are purchased for Charnier's company and processed before being shipped over to Marseille. But this type of explanation ended up on the cutting room floor—The French Connection, like Popeye Doyle, is more about action than info.
Mulderig hates Popeye, and the feeling is mutual. When Captain Simonson breaks the news to Federal Agent Mulderig that he'll be working on a case with Popeye, he basically has smoke coming out of his ears. But hey, Popeye has good hunches, Simonson reminds him. Mulderig snarls:
"His brilliant hunches cost the life of a good cop."
If we've learned anything from police dramas and television cop procedurals, it's that getting another cop killed is a cardinal sin for a man in blue. Here, Mulderig's giving us some important info: Popeye may be a hard-working guy, but he's none too careful and doesn't really break a sweat for anything but the case at hand. And that can be dangerous for everyone else.
Throughout the film, Mulderig (played by Bill Hickman, who was also in the west coast version of The French Connection, AKA, 1968's Bullitt) sits in the backseats of surveillance cars, being cranky, and giving Popeye a hard time. Why don't you just give up? he asks, over and over.
Mulderig isn't a fully developed character so much as the scowling ghost of Popeye's iffy conscience… until, of course, the agent's shot dead in the final scene.
Despite playing the pursued assassin in the movie's super-famous train-and-car chase scene, Pierre Nicoli is far more of a plot device than a character. Why would we say that? Well he's the "wild card" henchman who kicks off the movie by shooting a French detective. And he's got so much psychopathic verve that he thinks nothing of snagging the dead man's baguette on his way out. He's pure action-and-reaction, with nothing more than a handful of lines and just a few close-ups of his scowl.
Seen most often muttering schemes with his boss-man, Charnier (in historic fortress ruins and on airplanes, natch), Nicoli's next big scene doesn't come until he decides to go after Popeye, who's been giving everyone a good bit of trouble with his terrier-like persistence.
Even though Charnier says it would be better to skip this hit, Nicoli goes after Popeye anyway, shooting at him as he walks home from the precinct, through a park. Just that day, Popeye's been taken off the case, and even he understands that he can no longer pursue the Boca's gang and the Frenchmen.
But because Nicoli takes aim at him, Popeye pursues him in that awesome-sauce train vs. car chase… which gives him an excuse to get back on the case.
In Nicoli's final scene, he's staggering, injured, down the steps from the subway train he's just hijacked and crashed. He's left a wake of bodies, from the stroller-pushing lady in the park, to a couple of transit cops. Popeye, having dragged himself from his car, injured and wild with adrenaline, shoots Nicoli in the back.
It's not a brave killing, and not a clean one either. Even though Nicoli is so dang villainous, why do we feel that twinge of empathy as he falls dead from Popeye's bullet?
Captain Simonson, with his ruddy face and cherubic curls, looks a bit like an angry cartoon angel as he tries to control the completely uncontrollable Popeye. Played by IRL Popeye, Eddie Egan is playing a fictionalized version of his own captain.
Stern talking to after stern talking to, Simonson tries to make Popeye understand that he can't just go around doing what he wants without firm evidence and significant arrests. Think of him as a more powerful Cloudy: he's trying to constrain Popeye for his own good:
SIMONSON: Your hunches have backfired before, or have you forgotten that already?
But Simonson also has his own priorities: Popeye and Cloudy may lead the precinct in drug arrests, but they're mostly nickel-and-dime cases: a joint in a bellhop's sock, or a student with an eensy-weensy bag of coke:
SIMONSON: No collars are comin' in while you two guys are runnin' around town, jerkin' off.
Simonson needs to show the higher-ups that his squad is affecting real change, and maybe that's part of the reason he sets up Popeye with wire taps and warrants to begin with: his hunches have paid off before, and perhaps they'll pay off again.
"You know who lives here?" Cloudy asks Popeye, as they're staked out at a fancy doorman building in Manhattan. When Cloudy tells him it's Joel Weinstock, Popeye's interest is peaked. He says:
"He was the bank on that shipment outta Mexico three years ago." In that moment, we learn one of the two things most important about this Weinstock character: he's a known drug financier, and the fact that Sal is meeting with him is enough to keep Popeye hot on the case.
Later, when we get a chance to see what our cops don't, Weinstock counsels hot-tempered Boca to chill out and take his time doing this half-million dollar heroin deal. He's been around the block, and, he tells Sal, no one's ever regretted taking a moment to be careful.
Sal, however, is new to a deal of this magnitude, and he's afraid of losing Charnier's connection. He won't listen to this elder statesman, and Sal ends up dead, while Weinstock's own case is dismissed for "lack of proper evidence."