William Friedkin’s ‘The French Connection’: The Seventies’ Peak of Cinematic Excitement

A variety of camera mounts were rigged up inside and on a car driven by Gene Hackman for The French Connection (1971), shot by Owen Roizman, ASC. The ensuing chase, in which Hackman's detective, Popeye Doyle, pursues a criminal attempting to escape on a subway, has been justly celebrated as one of the most thrilling in film history. Courtesy of American Cinematographer

One of the first things that come to mind when The French Connection is discussed is the famous car chase scene, the breathtaking endeavor of Gene Hackman trying to catch an elevated train with his Pontiac. It can’t, however, be repeated too often or stressed too much that the legendary scene is only a cherry on top of William Friedkin’s celebrated crime thriller which functions perfectly as a whole. Pauline Kael wrote that on-location shooting had ushered in a new age of “nightmare realism,” with New York as “Horror City.” Exhilarating and suspenseful, innovative and uncompromising, The French Connection leaves a strong impression of being incredibly realistic authentic, empowering the emotions of fear, anxiety and expectation in the audience. The reason for this is the incredible effort of Friedkin and his crew put into making the film as authentic as possible.

The French Connection is an adaptation of Robin Moore’s book of the same name which dealt with the true story of NYPD detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, the cops who broke up a notorious drug operation and confiscated thirty-two million pounds worth of heroin. The two of them agreed to serve as technical advisors for the movie, while the screenplay itself, penned by Ernest Tidyman, experienced changes in the course of filming in favor of phrases suggested by Egan and Grosso, whose rich experience on the force contributed to the dominating sense of realism. Moreover, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider spent a month patrolling with Egan so they could get closer to the characters they were supposed to portray. The film’s success can be divided into three direct results: Gene Hackman’s career experienced a strong lift-off even though he was far from being anonymous after earlier films such as Bonnie and Clyde and I Never Sang for My Father, the film went on to win no less than five Academy Awards (best lead actor, best picture, direction, screenplay and editing) and, finally, the great William Friedkin further established himself as one of the leading filmmakers of his generation. Unbelievably fast-paced, beautifully directed and technically ahead of its time, The French Connection etched into our minds and hearts with ease as one of the most exciting films of the period.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Ernest Tidyman’s screenplay for The French Connection [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
“Regardless of my ambivalence toward The French Connection as a cultural event, I feel that William Friedkin is one of the best young American directors. I visited him in his austere office at Fox in December 1971. At 32, he is friendly, vain and slender. He speaks quickly and precisely, anticipating the questions, glancing at Variety during his responses.” —Michael Shedlin, an interview with William Friedkin, Film Quarterly, Summer 1972

 

‘THE CHASE’ IS THE PUREST FORM OF CINEMA

At about the same time, Mr. Friedkin met the legendary director Howard Hawks, who warned him about making several failures in a row. In Joseph McBride’s interview book Hawks on Hawks, Hawks recounted the advice he gave to the greenhorn director: “You’re gonna run out of pictures. They’re not going to let you make them unless you make something that people want to see… Do something that’s entertaining. People seem to like chase scenes. Make a good chase. Make one better than anyone’s done.” Hawks added, “And he did it in The French Connection.” —William Friedkin reflects on a varied career

William Friedkin talks about shooting the gripping car chase scene from The French Connection.


Open YouTube video

 

CHASING DOWN THE FRENCH CONNECTION

Upon seeing The French Connection for the first time, legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck proclaimed the chase sequences “the greatest [he had] ever seen.” Although the film won five Academy Awards, including those for Best Picture and Directing, it is the thrilling pursuit through New York City streets that many moviegoers remember most.

These excerpts from director William Friedkin’s notes, courtesy of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, reveal how he conceived each shot of the gripping chase sequences. With the help of cinematographer Owen Roizman and a talented second unit, Friedkin filmed the complicated sequences on location in Brooklyn along the West End Line. Later, film editor Jerry Greenberg spliced the footage together, heightening suspense with well-paced transitions between the policeman’s street pursuit and the criminal’s flight through the passenger carriages of an elevated train.

 

 
Despite the meticulousness with which Friedkin constructed the scene, some residents of Bensonhurst, the neighborhood where most of the sequence was filmed, were disappointed with some of the improbabilities depicted onscreen. In a letter to the director, one resident pointed out, for example, that the “N” train used in the sequence would not run on the West End Line, nor would a car be able to speed down 86th Street during the day due to the high traffic volume. In his response, Friedkin admitted to taking some artistic license with the scene, but deftly rebuffed the criticism by recalling an essential tenet of moviemaking: “The key to a successful sequence like the chase is allusion [sic]… What a dull chase it would have been had I stuck to what was probable.”

 
The William Friedkin papers are housed in Special Collections at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library.

 

 
A variety of camera mounts were rigged up inside and on a car driven by Gene Hackman for The French Connection, shot by Owen Roizman, ASC. The ensuing chase, in which Hackman’s detective, Popeye Doyle, pursues a criminal attempting to escape on a subway, has been justly celebrated as one of the most thrilling in film history. —American Cinematographer

 
Roizman used fast film stocks on the film in ways never before tried on a major production, he also developed new styles of camera placement, movement and operating on many scenes, the famous car chase being one of the most prevalent examples. William Friedkin, the film’s director, wanted to take a radicle departure from the basic film look of that time—late 60’s early 70’s—when most film lighting was high key. This was necessary because color negative film stocks were slow—100 ASA. Kodak was coming out with faster color negative, but most major theatrical production, as well as television spot commercial production, didn’t like to use the faster stock because of the grain factor. But for Friedkin’s creative mind set on Connection, the grain was ok. He wanted a gritty look and Owen Roizman was ready to give it to him, as you will see from the interview below. —DP Owen Roizman ASC & The French Connection

 
The great BBC documentary The Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Tracing ‘The French Connection’ recaps the criminal case and the creation of the film, getting frank responses from its subjects. The documentary takes us through the torturous process which led from the actual drug bust which formed the basis for the film, through several different screenplays, to the final Oscar-winning production. It provides differing views on the filmmaking process, including a critical view of the ‘difficult’ Friedkin.

 
There was an electricity in the air Friday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater as an enthusiastic capacity crowd waited in breathless anticipation for the 45th anniversary screening of The French Connection and a conversation between the film’s director William Friedkin and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of William Friedkin’s The French Connection. Still photographer: N/A © D’Antoni Productions, Schine-Moore Productions, Twentieth Century Fox, The Kobal Collection.

 
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in

Spread the love