Have you ever followed someone before? I don’t mean following a friend as you drive across town so you don’t get lost. I mean a complete stranger, or someone who would not welcome you keeping an eye on them. It’s a creepy question to answer yes to. The experience is nerve wracking, keeping the target in sight while you stealthily stay just out of their range of perception. You have to just go with it and ignore that part of your mind that calls you a creep, that’s what will make you slip up. But when your target realizes just what he is to you, there are only two options: slip into the shadows or chase. The French Connection is my dream chase.
In New York, Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) are cops in the Narcotics Bureau. On a hunch, they tail Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), owner of a seemingly normal sandwich shop. It turns out he’s about to make a deal with Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), one of the biggest suppliers of heroin to the US. Doyle and Russo have to try to intercept the huge heroin shipment from France, but things get messy when Boca and Charnier realize they’re being tailed.
Gene Hackman is so amazing as Doyle that he won the Oscar for leading actor. He has the most perfect loose-cannon cop presence I’ve ever seen. One of his shining moments is in an early scene where he busts a bar. As he enters, he yells, “Alright, Popeye’s here,” lines everyone against the wall and puts two men in the phone booths. He knows all the tricks, reaches underneath the bar railing, finds all sorts of drugs and mixes them together in a leftover drink to make a “milkshake”. Doyle is a loose guy, perhaps he gets too intense, but he’s a great cop. His intensity and sense of duty is what gives the chase scenes a personal drive.
Honestly, the first view can be a bit confusing if you don’t pay close attention to who wants what with the drugs, but the main idea is always clear: Guy 1 is following Guy 2. I remember in a film class we were shown about five minutes of the train chase. We weren’t given any premise, just “this is a chase” and that’s all we needed.
Director William Friedkin knows that when it’s filmed right, the most simple plot can be the most captivating. In the amazing-train-chase-scene, there is always a component of the chase shown in motion. We see Gene’s car maneuvering recklessly through traffic. The man on the train keeps moving forward and after enough time, catches a second tail. When we get a shot of Gene’s face as he’s driving, the train above is reflected on the windshield. As the chase continues, we only get more involved and stakes get higher. What began as an on-foot pursuit has turned into a man hijacking a above ground train being chased by a cop in a stolen car below.
I’ve often talked about how I love to yell at certain films, especially tense Hitchcock moments. Readers, I honestly wish I had been a further creep and videoed my reactions throughout this film. I was brought repeatedly to my feet, cursing, yelling at Gene Hackman, “Get back on the train!” By the end, my brain was fizzling and my veins pumped pupil dilating adrenaline. There was a good half an hour before I could do anything more than pace around the house cursing in delight and jubilation. I can only hope it will give you the same reaction. The French Connection won Picture, Director, Actor, Editing and Writing and my undying love. This is one of the greatest films I have ever seen.
“I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.”