The recent passing of Roy Scheider has obviously saddened the film world, his charismatic talent having always been a welcome presence on-screen. Best remembered for his role of Martin Brody in Steven Spielberg’s landmark blockbuster Jaws (1975), it is nevertheless his portrayal of Sonny Grasso in William Friedkin’s The French Connection that was his greatest performance, a miracle of supporting character acting, and the perfect foil for Gene Hackman’s abrasive Popeye Doyle. Aside from its hugely distinctive style, it is the chemistry between these two leads which raises the film from simply being great to being one of the true Greats of American Cinema.
Based on the popular Robin Moore non-fiction book of the same name, the film centres on one of the most famous and successful drug busts in the history of policing, when a drugs trafficking scheme between Marseilles and New York was smashed, in part thanks to the tireless and somewhat obsessive work of detectives Doyle and Russo, based on real-life cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. But the film could so easily have been a run-of-the-mill cop drama; how did this relatively low budget film turn into the critical and popular smash hit which swept through the 1971 Academy Awards, and help launch the so-called New Hollywood of the 1970s?
William Friedkin had moved to Hollywood in 1965, with a reputation as something of a prodigy in the field of documentary and factual filmmaking. By the turn of the next decade had already completed four feature films: a Sonny and Cher vehicle, two play adaptations and a vaudeville period piece, all met with strictly limited critical acclaim.
The French Connection would see the director return to his documentary roots, filming in a cinéma-vérité fashion influenced by the recent European landmarks Z (1969) and The Battle of Algiers (1966), which lent the film a gritty, grimy feel throughout. This matched perfectly the side of New York Friedkin wanted to show us: not the glittering lights of Manhattan, but the mean streets of Brooklyn and the deserted warehouses of Randall’s Island. This, in effect, paved the way for further great New York films of the 1970s, made by Friedkin’s peers: Coppola’s The Godfather (1973), Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), Lumet’s Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
There are of course many memorable, iconic scenes that stay etched into the memory: THAT car chase, THAT shooting in the back, THAT ending. The editing in these scenes and others is also of particular note, lending a panicked, frenzied air to proceedings. All of this does add up to a great film, but what really lifts it up further into the pantheon of the true greats is what Friedkin managed to acheive with actors Scheider and Hackman, creating a dynamic between them which is often unspoken but always entirely realistic. Scheider is clearly the foil for Hackman’s Doyle, technically a lesser role, but it is their somewhat strained working relationship which serves to flesh-out our feelings towards Popeye more satisfactorily.
As for Hackman, his is such a committed performance, that one feels that his sanity was hanging by a thread during production. Friedkin knew how to marshall the best out of him, and the results speak for themselves; Doyle is neurotically obsessed with cracking the case, but his motivation not based in any ideology or pious belief – he has become driven by a strange mixture of habitualization, self-loathing, racism, the need to bully others, and the need to ‘win’, whatever the cost to himself and others. To an extent, there is some similarity between this character and the one Hackman would portray in Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece The Conversation – Harry Caul is just as obsessive and neurotic as Doyle, just more mild-mannered, and secretive.
The French Connection will always be remembered as a great film, but its popular appeal should not diminish what an extraordinarily important and landmark work it was for filmmaking in the USA; here was a statement of intent from the first of a new breed of director, ones who wanted to rewrite the language of American cinema on their own terms, to take the influence of European art cinema and mould it into something their own, something exciting and new.