"You stuck a shiv in my partner, you know what that means? It means all winter I gotta listen to him gripe about his bowling scores."
The importance of The French Connection in cinema history cannot be overstated. Quite simply, it gave birth to the gritty cop movie that has been done to death in the ensuing decades, and every single time, the imitators have paled by comparison. Prior to 1971, the cops in action movies looked like Steve McQueen & Paul Newman. After 1971, they started to look like character actors, such as Gene Hackman & Roy Scheider. Prior to 1971, action movies were shot very classically. After 1971, they all adopted the handheld, documentary style aesthetic employed by director William Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman.
Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) & Buddy Russo (Scheider) are detectives running a narcotics beat. They fit the model of two guys who never stop working. Early in the film, they leave work and go to a bar to unwind, and when they get there, they notice a table full of people throwing money around like there's no tomorrow. They decide, just for fun, to tail the man guy, Sal Boca (Tony LoBianco), and they end up stumbling into the middle of a potentially huge drug deal taking place with some Frenchmen, headed by Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), or as Doyle & Russo dub him, Frog One.
Doyle & Russo fall into the rabbit hole, and begin tailing anyone and everyone they think may be involved. Their exuberance gets the best of them, and they often end up paying the price for it. Their police chief trusts them, but knows that the guys they're dealing with a clever criminals, and that no matter how much info Doyle & Russo come across, they're always dangerously one step behind.
What was so groundbreaking about The French Connection was its interest in the procedural side of things. Nowadays, with shows like Law & Order all over the airwaves, 24 hours a day, these stories are run of the mill, but in the early 70s, a cop film usually had an inciting incident, a little bit of investigating, and then the busting of the perps. The French Connection gave rise to the notion that people might be interested in more than "just the facts" that Joe Friday was concerned with. This was detective work, lots of stakeouts, information gathering, shaking down informants, all that stuff the suits in Hollywood figured nobody was interested in.
For his fourth feature, William Friedkin decided to fall back on his early work in documentaries to establish the look of the film. He would rehearse his actors without the crew present, so that when shooting began, the cameramen would be scrambling to follow the action. Friedkin is a director known for his, and I'll put this generously, unconventional techniques, particularly when working with actors.
He apparently was constantly pushing Hackman to go darker with this role, and it paid off great dividends as both men won Oscars for their work (along with the film, the screenplay & the editing).
The film's total lack of closure is frustrating for a lot of people, but I've come to accept it over time. There are no easy answers and no tidy resolution you could possibly give this story. And whatever you do, please don't seek answers to closure in the god-awful sequel directed by John Frankenheimer, a man I have no issue with saying never directed a good movie.
The iconic car chase is arguably the film's highlight (though I prefer Doyle tailing Frog One through the streets and subway station). What's so revolutionary about the car chase is not just its relentlessness, but that fact that there's no score in that scene. There's no music whatsoever. As the chase continues on foot, climaxing in the famous shooting at the top of the stairs, there's music, but the entirety of the car chase is music-free, and that's just another pioneering moment in a film full of them.
On an interesting side note, and I'll close with this, the film was first released on blu-ray in late 2008, and Friedkin decided to play with the film a bit for this release. What he did, claiming it was the way he had always intended the film to look, is he desaturated all the color in the film, and essentially bringing it down to black and white, and then subtly layered in color, mostly blue and orange, giving the film an odd tint. Owen Roizman was apparently furious with this decision, and there is now a Best Buy exclusive blu-ray of the film that was released a few weeks ago. I picked it up tonight, and I'm happy to report that the film looks better than ever. Friedkin & Roizman both approved of this new transfer, and while I'm not getting rid of my old blu-ray as it's a cool conversation piece, if you don't yet own the film, pick up this new transfer. It looks amazing.