Monday 8 January 2018

The French Connection (USA 1971: Dir William Friedkin)

Continuing my viewing notes for the FEAST Film Nights evenings, these were my musings on The French Connection:

Towards the end of the 1960s major Hollywood studios started worrying that they might be out of touch with younger viewing audiences, and began hiring ‘risky’ directors like Arthur Penn (The Chase (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967)), Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch (1969)) and Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider (1969)) to breathe new life into depictions of America at the cinema. But despite the advances made by these movies, the concept of The French Connection – where drugs are rife in the city and New York cops are almost indistinguishable from the bad guys - was deemed too amoral, and was turned down by nearly every major studio before finally getting the green light from 20th Century Fox. 

The French Connection is an adaptation of Robin Moore’s 1969 book of the same name, which told the true story of NYPD detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, who broke up a notorious New York drug operation and confiscated thirty-two million pounds worth of heroin. Egan and Grosso served as technical advisors on the movie, incorporating their own phrasing into Ernest Tidyman’s script - their film counterparts Gene Hackman (who was not the director’s first choice – Friedkin originally wanted Jackie Gleason) and Roy Scheider spent a month patrolling with Egan so they could get closer to the characters they were portraying. It’s probably best known for having one of the tensest car chases in the history of film, but The French Connection is so much more than that – both an intense character study and essay on the price of corruption.

In a 2015 interview with the film’s director, William Friedkin, he reflected on the making of the film: “We were mostly influenced by the European films of the 1960s. The French new wave; Italian neo-realism; Kurosawa and other Japanese filmmakers. We were inspired by them and not bound to any formula. The French Connection, for all its success, was a real departure for a cop film, which was why it took us two years to get it made.”

“The chase scene was never in (the) script. I created that…with the producer Philip D’Antoni…we walked out of my apartment, headed south in Manhattan and we kept walking until we came up with that chase scene, letting the atmosphere of the city guide us. The steam coming off the street, and sound of the subway rumbling beneath our feet - the treacherous traffic on crowded streets. Nobody ever asked to see a script. We went three hundred thousand over (the) million and a half dollar budget, and they (the studio) wanted to kill me every day for that.”

Friedkin hasn’t always been the most reliable of documenters of his own films, and probably the greatest thing about The French Connection is that, while he makes it sound like it was made up as he went along, it’s actually a meticulously plotted movie without a wasted shot, which played its own part in changing the future of film.


  1. I agree, it's a fantastic film, and certainly a huge influence on the wave of Italian poliziottesco films that followed in its wake. Seeing the film today, it still feels raw - that scene where Doyle and Russo shakedown the black bar is so casual in its racism, it's jolting even by contemporary cop show standards. I like the sequel very much too.

  2. Thanks Wes - agreed re II. Friedkin's output between 1968 - 1978 was consistently challenging and satisfying. Sadly he went off the boil afterwards, but what a decade!