|Gene Hackman in a scene with Eddie Egan, the real "Popeye"|
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Director: William Friedkin.
The book "The French Connection" was a non-fiction account of New York City cops busting a big heroin racket with ties to France, focusing on two of those cops [although many were involved]: Eddie "Popeye" Egan and Sonny Grosso. In this film version of the book the names were changed and Egan was cast as his own boss (Grosso also has a small role). Gene Hackman, who doesn't seem that much like a NYPD officer, got the role of Doyle while Roy Scheider was cast as his partner, Russo. Amazingly Hackman won an Oscar, as did the film and Friedkin for direction. The main problem with the movie is that it has hardly any plot or characters. Neither Doyle nor Russo nor anyone else are that dimensional in Ernest Tidyman's screenplay, so all we're left with is action, and not enough of it. The stand-out scene is a well-executed frantic chase between a hit man on an elevated subway, which he takes control of, and Doyle careening below following him on the street in a car. The movie has no humanistic touches, nor any memorable sequences aside from the chase. It begins well, with another chase sequence, holds the attention, and looks good for the most part as we are taken to beautiful settings in Marseilles and grubby streets in Brooklyn and Manhattan. While The French Connection was never a masterpiece, there have been so many, grittier cop-and-drug themed movies and TV shows since then that whatever edge it once had has been blunted. Considering how little really hard acting is required of the part in this story, Egan -- who became a professional actor although never on the lines of, say, Edward G. Robinson -- might as well have been cast to play himself. Oh, yes, the film has a racist hero who utters the "n" word even though he works with brave black undercover agents. Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco and others are fine in underdeveloped supporting roles. The story was continued in John Frankenheimer's French Connection 2.
Verdict: Popular but over-rated crime thriller. **1/2.