Double Take: ‘The French Connection’ (1971)

You pick your feet in Poughkeepsie, and we pick The French Connection for Double Take #18.

Steve Leftridge: I once got into a debate with a film writer about the merits, or lack thereof, of modern action/suspense films. During this discussion, my friend proclaimed that The French Connection was the greatest police thriller of all time and that nothing made in the last couple decades comes close. So, as always here at Double Take, I’ll have to get your take on the overall quality of the film at some point, but I’m going to open with a discussion of Popeye Doyle, the hard-boiled central character played by Gene Hackman. An original tagline for the film read, “Doyle is bad news…but a good cop.” Do you think that’s an accurate description of Officer Doyle?

Steve Pick: Hell no, he’s a terrible cop. He operates on hunches more than investigation, he beats the crap out of people he takes into custody, he has at some point in the past gotten another cop (or federal agent, I forget which) killed, he treats all African-Americans in a bar as if they were criminals, he holds grudges, he disobeys orders, he shoots and kills the federal agent assigned to this case, and in the end, he doesn’t stop the flow of drugs nor capture the guy who was bringing them in. I can’t believe even in 1971 his actions were considered to be anything but vicious and reprehensible.

Now, does he make for a great character in a film of this sort? That I will concede. Gene Hackman creates a living, breathing, messy human being that is 100% believable at all times. Whether it’s his obsession with the question, “Do you pick your feet?” or his impossibly sloppy seduction techniques or his never-say-die determination in that wondrous car/elevated train chase sequence or his bullying his co-workers to keep tearing apart the car looking for the heroin, Popeye Doyle is just smart enough to know an answer is available and not smart enough to quit before he finds it. Of course, that’s why everything goes so badly in the final sequence in that warehouse. Better cops aren’t so stubborn that they would be so determined to catch the villain as to kill the other good guys.

Leftridge: You talkin’ to me, baby? I agree with you. Doyle is a compelling character, thanks to Hackman’s nervy screen presence and Ernest Tidyman’s savvy screenplay. I’m drawn to Doyle because, like most memorable anti-heroes, from Ethan Edwards to Travis Bickle, Doyle has qualities that tempt me to root for him despite the fact that he’s mostly reprehensible. He has the toughness, determination, and renegade spirit that would make for a good detective, if he weren’t such a cruel, short-sighted, booze-addled racist with a laser-focus on busting criminals no matter the cost. Doyle’s is a pernicious pragmatism — the dude won’t rest (save a little handcuff play now and then) until the bad guys are hauled in, never mind that he tends to rely on bullshit hunches, that his targets aren’t necessarily bad guys at all, and that his unethical obsession with narcotics dealers is unreasonable and futile. You mention the 1971 backdrop, and it’s interesting to filter today’s utter failure of the “War on Drugs” through Nixon-era attitudes about drug possession, not that it’s changed nearly enough.

But the circle of corruption and violence that we see in the film as a result of the cutthroat tactics of special narcotics officers like Doyle remain shocking, and it’s clear that the line between the cops and the criminals is a porous one. Central to this fiasco is the race issue that you touched on. Doyle terrorizes black patrons of a bar who are minding their own business; their only “crime” is perhaps attempting to alter their consciousness through imbibition, something that Doyle, as an alcoholic, does every day. Doyle roughs up a few men, makes a “milkshake” with drugs that he finds stashed under the bar, and arrests a couple of guys in a hypocritical display of tyrannical dominance, when, all along, Doyle is only interested in a bigger score. To that end, Doyle and his partner, “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider), start casing Sal Bocca and his wife Angie, whom they happened to see having drinks in a bar (again, minding their own business), to try to figure out where their money is coming from. Doyle’s motivation during these surveillance scenes is a fun bit of psychology at the beginning of the film. Why do you suppose Doyle is so desperate to bust Bocca in the first place?

Pick: Doyle is like a dog who’s seen a rabbit visit his house, and then spends weeks or months thinking that rabbit has to be in the house somewhere. Most cops wouldn’t have thought anything about the people at that restaurant table, except for maybe “This has to be the very last year women are going to wear those crazy hairpieces, right?” (As it happened, I think that was an accurate thought.) But not Doyle. He wants to know more about the guy he doesn’t recognize in a crowd of low-level dealers. To that end, he will convince his partner to stay up all night and wait outside until the party breaks up, then tail them all over New York City, then spend even more time spying on them at their work place, all on a hunch (which happens to be correct) that they will lead him to a much bigger drug deal. Why does he do that? Because he thought they were worth looking into, and Doyle DOES NOT GIVE UP!

This leads into one of my three favorite scenes in the whole film, the one where Cloudy goes into the candy store/diner owned by the Bocas, and pretends he wants Angie to model clothing for him. Arlene Farber never had much of a career as an actress, but I seriously love the way she and Roy Scheider interact in this small sequence, the sense that she knows he’s pulling something but she also wants to put something over on her husband, all while he knows she thinks something’s fishy but he’s more interested in what’s going on in the space around them than anything she’s going to say. I forget the amount of money they talked about, but it was ridiculously high to determine how clothes would fit a body about her size. This small scene, along with the even more coyly played one between Fernando Rey’s Alain Chanier and his much younger paramour, rival the justly celebrated car chase sequence that remains the film’s set piece. (If you know one thing about The French Connection, you know that part.) What else sticks with you as particularly well done in the film?

Leftridge: The performances, which I’ve mentioned, especially Hackman’s, who seems entirely authentic to me, but also Scheider’s, and I love your attention to that scene in the diner. Hackman and Scheider also have great chemistry in The French Connection, and the film is full of little moments of method-y choices that add to the movie’s realism. Take for instance the snapshots of characters eating. Cloudy makes that proposal to Angie with a bit of his sandwich falling out of his mouth; Doyle eats a piece of bread while casing Sal and then tosses it over his shoulder; later, when staked out outside the restaurant in which Alain is enjoying an upscale dinner, Doyle makes do with a slice of pizza, which he eats while standing and shivering in the cold. Alain is a guy who knows his way around good food — notice the way he picks some sort of shellfish from the rocks and eats it elegantly with his knife. The contrast between Doyle and Alain illustrated by these eating juxtapositions helps develop these characters and explain Doyle’s determination to take Alain down.

The other aspect that makes The French Connection uniquely well-crafted is the fact that it’s nearly a silent film for large stretches. If you turn on the subtitles, every once in a while they read, “No audible dialogue,” because the hearing impaired would be thinking, “Surely someone is saying something during this 20-minute stretch of the movie.” But no. And that’s where William Friedkin’s direction is most impressive. For all of the attention that the incredible car/subway chase sequence deservedly gets, the overall plot actually develops slowly with lots of space and observational detail. Dialogue is often whispered or mumbled, and those cat-and-mouse sequences when the cops are following their suspects around the city pretending to window shop — especially Alain outmaneuvering Doyle on the subway — contain a ton of incredible choreography of movement and camerawork. Let me reverse the shot: Is there anything you don’t love about The French Connection?

Pick: Given that the overall film is exquisitely made, with so many details accreting into a masterful whole, it doesn’t seem fair to talk about the downsides. This is especially true because the biggest problem I have with this film is one fairly common to popular culture in 1971, the ways in which white people viewed African-Americans at the time. We are six years past the Civil Rights Acts, three years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and white artists took the lesson that stereotypes were okay as long as small steps were made to pretend it was equal opportunity. We mentioned the ways in which Doyle treats everybody in the bar as suspects, but we didn’t point out the way William Friedkin showed almost everyone there to actually have drugs of one sort or another on their person. It was common at that time for filmmakers, novelists, musicians, and other white artists to claim they were showing the real world by revealing the warts and all nature of their characters. And, mind you, Friedkin makes that bar seem attractive, with the funk music blaring, and the laughter, and the general sense of camaraderie. But while Doyle’s racism is shown as one tiny aspect of a very complex personality, the African-Americans in the film are all reduced to objects to be acted upon. Heck, even the black undercover cop had to be punched by Doyle, ostensibly to convince everybody else he was one of them. The two sequences in the bar remind me of the way Mick Jagger went around calling his black friends “spades” in interviews published at the time, hurtful while thinking it was showing respect.

Other than that, I only ask one question — why did Doyle disguise himself as Santa Claus for that opening scene? Sure, it made for a great visual to have him chasing that guy dressed that way, but what was the point in terms of recognizance?

Leftridge: Hey, Christmas comes but once a year. And Santa sees you when you’re sleeping and when you’re picking your feet. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good or he’ll chase you down and beat the shit out of you. If nothing else, the Santa scene provides some dark irony — one of cinema’s most unsentimental hardasses dressed as Santa, sprinting down the street to rough up a poor black guy. Your comments about the folks in the bar remind me of our earlier discussion on John Ford, who, despite whatever Western revisionism he had in mind, still left plenty of racist attitudes in The Searchers. I had a similar reaction: Why did this have to be a bar of only black patrons, and would every person in this bar be carrying all these drugs? (And how did they affix their stashes to the underside of the bar?)

On one hand, the scene further establishes Doyle’s dickheadedness and his utter lack of respect for the people in the bar (“Get that hair done by Saturday”, he tells a woman on his way out), but Friedkin and Tidyman are probably trying to illustrate the fact that the people who traffic the drugs are millionaires while the street-level buyers and users are at the bottom of the economic ladder. Doyle is closer to the bottom than to the top — you saw his apartment — which feeds his resentment of, say, the easy spending of Sal and his Italian friends when Doyle first saw them in the bar and, hence, his determination to bust them. This is New York City in the ‘70s — when the subways, parks, Times Square, etc., were full of crime, pollution, hookers, drug pushers, etc. The roving, tracking, often hand-held cameras capture the city from this era as well as any film, even Scorsese’s. So, yeah, Friedkin was certainly going for realistic seediness and maybe making a political comment on the drug trade’s destructive effects on the black community, but I agree that he ended up relying on stereotypes to achieve his goal.

Let me ask you one more question. At the end of the film, Doyle accidentally shoots and kills Mulderig. Oops! Then, we see him run through the warehouse pursuing Alain. We lose sight of Doyle and hear a final, single gunshot before we cut to black. What do you make of that ambiguous ending?

Pick: The ambiguous ending makes the film work. To me, the whole point, aside from the one you noted about the class differences between those who profit from the drugs and those who use them, is the wastefulness of the War on Drugs, which hadn’t even been declared yet when The French Connection was made. All that effort, all that time and money and personnel expended, and the man who was behind heroin distribution in New York gets away scott free and able to make more money doing the same thing in the future. Meanwhile, a federal agent is dead, and lower level members of the criminal conspiracy are punished to varying degrees. The demand for drugs remains, perhaps even stronger because of the way the users are treated. The title cards at the end tell us Alain is not caught, and who goes to jail for how long. Surprisingly, Doyle and Cloudy are transferred to a different department, though I would think even in 1971 killing a Federal officer by mistake would be enough to get you drummed out of the force entirely.

If somehow Alain had been killed or captured, The French Connection would have been a fairly typical, albeit extremely well done, story of cops and robbers. Instead, it’s a powerful indictment of the ways in which those who are powerful (i.e., the people with money) win out over those not so fortunate. And it’s still extremely well done.

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