Why you should care
Because nitro-fueled car chase chaos has never been this cool.
When a film legend like Howard Hawks advises you to make a movie that’s not “lousy” and you’re a film director like William Friedkin, you rise to the challenge. The challenge met is now mandatory viewing: The French Connection, and it is as different from current cop thrillers as those are from, say, real life.
Drawn from the real-life doings of New York detectives Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan (Egan cameoed as… yeah, a police detective), The French Connection is a 1971 movie about $32 million of heroin being smuggled into New York via Marseille, France — and it ended up being very much not lousy, to the tune of five Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, one New York Film Critics Circle award and easily twice as many nominations. Plus it raked in a $51.7 million domestic box office gross on an estimated budget of $1.8 million. Not a bad vig at all.
The scene seemed as close to the edge of chaos as it probably was.
But that’s not at all why we care. Why we care has to do with the components, the god in the details of what made the film great: a genre-defining and defying car chase scene. With Gene Hackman as the Egan-inspired Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle driving a commandeered 1971 Pontiac LeMans, the chase followed an elevated subway train through Brooklyn from the streets below. Partially filmed with a front bumper-mounted camera and on film stock that was occasionally slowed down when filming so it’d be sped up when shown at normal speed, the scene included a handful of actual unplanned crashes, and seemed as close to the edge of chaos as it probably was.
“For my money, the best car chase scene ever is with Steve McQueen in Bullitt,” said Bob Calhoun, film critic and author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay, and Conflict on the Expo Floor, which is about the 1968 San Francisco-based hit film. “But The French Connection was easily the East Coast corollary, even if it was just almost as great.”
In all fairness, part of the excitement had to do with the way Friedkin intercut shots of what was happening on the runaway subway train; specifically, the pursued killer doing what killers do. But it is the street action with Hackman almost killing just about everybody, himself included, that sticks with you. Friedkin, unmarried and without kids at the time, filmed part of the chase from the car’s backseat himself — because anyone else on the crew who could have done it had family connections that made their possible untimely death less than desirable. The scene’s conclusion? Strong enough stuff to make it to the movie posters in imagery that was damn near iconic.
As the late Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel said about it, “There is only one problem with the excitement generated by this film. After it is over, you will walk out of the theater and, as I did, curse the tedium of your own life.”