The French Connection (1971): A Great Period Piece Thriller and the Drug War


     I really enjoyed “The French Connection.” I liked very few of the characters in it, but the story itself and the the fact that it’s a slow thriller with great build up made it a lot of fun to watch. I never felt bored and whether purposeful or not, this film does a great job of showing how unfair the drug war is to communities without power. The fact that it is based off a non-fiction book by the same name also lends power to the narrative and makes me want to read it.

     The film was directed by William Friedkin, written by Ernest Tidyman produced by Philip D’Antoni and based off the book by Robin Moore.

     The story recounts the events of trying to take down the drug lord Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) during his stay in New York City by the detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider). Things soon get out of their control as they discover just how high up Charnier’s influence goes and the problems “Popeye” causes during the course of the investigation.

The Pros: The Writing – Ernest Tidyman did a great job on the script. So much of it is showing rather than telling and we get to figure things out with the Detectives as we never see what Sal or Charnier do in regards to the movement of the drugs. This makes it compelling and drives the thriller, especially since they initially don’t come off as bad people.

The Cinematography – Owen Roizman did a great job on this film. The cinematography pulls you in and captures the tension really well as there is an aura of shadow about everything and the desolate areas take place with contrasted with the bustle of New York create a wonderful sense of mystery and fear.

The Soundtrack – Don Ellis took a classic approach to this soundtrack (sounds similar to any Hitchcock film with it’s own twist) and it serves the story very well. Throughout the soundtrack there is a slow build up of action leading to a finalness and ambiguity, which fits the themes and characters of the film.

Sal – Sal is working with Charnier to get the drugs to sell on the streets and he nearly succeeds even with the police around his home and tracking him everywhere. He is a cheater but we see that he isn’t a murder, at least in the events of this film. He never attacks unless he’s attacked and a lot of what he does goes towards his family. He’s complicated for a minor drug dealer. Tony Lo Bianco did a good job. He was the only memorable minor character.

Alain Charnier – Is the mastermind behind the deal going down and actually manages to escape at the end of the film. He is kind and genial but also works with monsters like his Hitman so has a disregard for those who don’t serve his purposes as “Popeye” does. Fernando Rey did a fantastic job as the antagonist who drives the story and keeps the action and questions going through the film.

Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle – “Popeye” is obsessed and is cynical about everyone. We see him call all people liars and beat suspects on multiple occasions. It’s really hard to see him as any sort of heroic given that he targets people, especially African-Americans who have done nothing wrong and acts like a bully. This is contrasted with the sensitivity of Charnier. In the end it is his obsession that is his undoing as he kills someone on the force thinking they were Charnier and escapes into the dark where we here a gunshot. He was complicated, which made him fun to watch. Gene Hackman is also a wonderful actor.

Buddy “Cloudy” Russo – Roy Scheider plays the only character who is remotely sympathetic as he calls out his partner “Popeye” when he does bully. He is also the one who registers what the obsession is doing, especially at the end when “Popeye” kills one of the detectives in his obsession and fear of Charnier.

Life Under the Drug War and Abuse – The drug war disproportionately targets communities without power, largely poor and minority communities and this film does a great job portraying that as we see Russo and Doyle do random shakedowns, beat people when questioning them and never have their force questioned unless it is by one another. This is obviously still going on and is just as real in the late 60’s when it took place as it is today.

The Ending – The ending ends with Doyle shooting his boss and escaping into the dark believing he saw Charnier. A gunshot goes off and later we see in the credits that Charnier was never caught, showing that all of Doyle’s obsession was in the end, kind of empty and didn’t even help himself.

Okay: The Minor Characters – Most of the minor characters are forgettable and none of them really stand out besides Sal. Part of this might be purposeful as they are nothing to the detectives but means to an end, but I would have liked to see more with Charnier’s Hitman, girlfriend and Sal’s spouse. These characters were pretty forgettable which was a shame.

  This is a great thriller that ends up showing a lot more than it may have meant to. I don’t know what side of the story the book takes but this does a good job of showing that there aren’t really any good people in this conflict except maybe Buddy. Everyone else is driven and obsessed and has a disregard for life because of that obsession with meeting their own ends…and their obsessions get others killed. It was also powerful how this film showed how the communities without power are the ones who get the brunt of the war as we saw from the African American bar shakedown and the places were most of the police stakeouts took place. This lended power to the film beyond the very good script, cinematography and acting by the main stars. Honestly, it didn’t need a sequel.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10