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

 

By Sven Mikulec

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. Screenwriter must-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.

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Released in 1971, The French Connection set a new standard for American crime films with a tough, gritty New York style that was often imitated for the rest of the decade. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider star as Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo, a pair of narcotics detectives, in a story based on the real-life experiences of cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. The film’s depiction of one of the world’s biggest drug busts became an immediate critical and commercial success, earning eight Academy Award nominations and winning five including Best Picture, Directing, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and Film Editing. Now with highlights from the Academy’s collections including the papers of director William Friedkin, discover more about the making of an essential American classic.

 
After winning the DGA Award, William Friedkin wrote this often circulated piece about the creation of The French Connection’s landmark chase scene for the Guild’s magazine, Action.

 
Finalized in November of 1970, this cast list shows all of the primary actors cast in the film as shooting was about to begin.

 
The legendary car chase in The French Connection featured several unplanned mishaps, including the crashing of one civilian’s vehicle (which the production later paid for).

 
This sample of the music notes for The French Connection gives an idea of the many pieces of music involved in the film, including source music heard in the street locations. Music editor Ken Wannberg would go on to become a noted composer in his own right. From the William Friedkin Papers.

 
The real-life Popeye Doyle, Eddie Egan, passed away in November of 1995. He also appeared in the film itself—playing the boss of the character he inspired!

 
After several rounds with other writers that proved unsuccessful, Ernest Tidyman (author of Shaft) was brought in to write The French Connection and give it the dialogue the rhythm and tone of real New York speech.

 
These annotated pages from Ernest Tidyman’s screenplay for The French Connection show the attention to local detail and pacing that were required to bring the story to the screen.

 
Not only was The French Connection a big hit in America, but it performed very well in the other country that figures prominently in its storyline, too.

 
William Friedkin and former NYPD detective Randy Jergensen reunite in front of one of the most famous locations from The French Connection. Jergensen served as a technical consultant on the film, and his police experiences also inspired a later Friedkin New York thriller, Cruising (1980).

 
Gene Hackman was 41 years old when he appeared in his breakout role as Popeye Doyle. Did you know he thought of himself as a “potato face” and was living at the time in one of the homes of Hollywood director Michael Curtiz?

 
Under contract with Universal Studios’ Directors Program at the time, filmmaker Philip Kaufman wrote this congratulatory letter about The French Connection to William Friedkin. Kaufman would go on to direct such films as The Right Stuff, The Wanderers, and the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

 
As this letter from one attentive viewer of The French Connection and William Friedkin’s response point out, any plot holes you might think you’ve spotted could have a wholly unexpected explanation.

 
The true story behind The French Connection continued to have ramifications long after the film came out, including this drug bust in 1973.

 
After the publication of William Friedkin’s Action article about The French Connection, a fan wrote this letter about some of its location goofs—and here’s what Friedkin had to say in response.

 
This reference map was used as a reference point by William Friedkin and the crew when plotting the train-to-street chase sequence in The French Connection.

 
The critical and commercial success of The French Connection prompted William Friedkin to write this telegram to Richard Zanuck, who would be instrumental in the creation of Jaws.

 
Jack Nicholson presents the Oscar for Best Picture to Philip D’Antoni for The French Connection at the 44th Annual Academy Awards in 1972.

 
Liza Minnelli presents the Oscar for Best Actor to Gene Hackman.

 
Legendary playwright Tennessee Williams presents the Adapted Screenplay Oscar to Ernest Tidyman.

 
Frank Capra and Natalie Wood present the Oscar for Directing to William Friedkin.

 

‘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.


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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.

 

 

OWEN ROIZMAN, ASC

“To light that area and make all the setups we had to make, with all the extras we had to use, would have taken forever. So I decided to shoot using only available light. It didn’t look bright to the eye, but, as it turned out, I had more light down there than I had in any of the interior locations where I used my own lighting. In fact, I had about two to four times as much. The big problem was that the fluorescents on the platform were a different color from those on the train, which were warmer. At first I toyed with the idea of changing all the lamps in the subway cars, since there were only two or three cars to worry about, and then they would have matched the lamps on the platform. The lab could have made an overall correction and everything would have looked right and perfect. Instead, I did just the opposite. I let it go as it was, so that part of it looked a little blue and the rest looked a little warm. I think the scene looked more realistic that way, and it saved all the time that would have been needed to change the lamps.” —Owen Roizman

 
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 © D’Antoni Productions, Schine-Moore Productions, Twentieth Century Fox, The Kobal Collection. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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