How The French Connection Changed Police Movies

We examine the real story behind The French Connection, and look at how police procedural flicks were never the same afterward.

The French Connection is a seminal work in cop movies. It was that first sniff that hooked the moviegoing public on Hollywood’s war on drugs. It changed the look and the dynamic of law enforcement on film by focusing on the worn heels and tires of street-level surveillance. The movie should be boring with all that waiting around and stealthy shadowing, but the pacing and the performances keep it moving at a breakneck pace comparable to chasing a subway. The French Connection is probably the closest Hollywood has come to a true on-the-street crime procedural in a blockbuster. Things that are cliché in cop movies now were invented here.

The French Connection screeched into theaters in 1971. It was directed by William Friedkin, produced by Philip D’Antoni, and starred Gene Hackman as Det. “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as his partner, Buddy “Cloudy” Russo. The movie also starred Fernando Rey and Tony LoBianco as the criminals. The screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman. It’s a fictionalized adaptation of the 1969 true crime book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore.

The book focuses on New York Police Department Narcotics detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso as they follow a hunch named Pasquale “Patsy” Fuca out of the Copacabana nightclub to an international heroin ring. The ensuing investigation led the two narco cops to one of the biggest heroin busts in history. The 1962 pinch pulled in 64 pounds of “pure” heroin, worth about $220 million on the street. A lot of junkies went into forced detox on account of this case.

In so many ways, the movie is completely faithful to the book. In so many ways, it deviates. For the most part, the variations are for cinematic effect. The car chase scene is one of the seven wonders of crime movies, along with waking up to a horse’s head in your bed and the tollbooth scene in The Godfather; Cagney’s death roll down the church stairs in The Roaring Twenties, or Cody’s explosive exit in White Heat; and Al Pacino staring down a chainsaw in Scarface.

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In the book Egan and Grosso follow Fuca through a huge heroin deal the low-level Mafiosi is making with Jean Jehan. The Frenchman with the connection brings hundreds of pounds of junk through a beautiful new Buick driven by French TV personality Jacques Angelvin. The car is a thing to behold on the page. Angelvin can’t wait to get behind the wheel and he’s got no idea what’s under the hood, in the chassis, or behind the panels. The film captures the mechanical wonder of this drug-delivery system sedan by tearing it up and putting it back together to justify the weight differential caused by hidden drugs. The book explains how grease monkeys did it.

According to Grosso, Corsican Jean Jehan was the kingpin of the French Connection heroin ring during the 1950s and into the 1960s, but he was never arrested for international heroin smuggling. Friedkin contends that Jehan was part of the French Resistance to Nazi Occupation during World War II, and that trumps jail time to French authorities. Being a national hero is a get out of jail free card in the progressive country renowned for its cold soup and creamy pastries. Jehan reportedly continued pushing dope all over Europe throughout the ’80s and died of old age at his home in Corsica.

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The book mentions that Lucky Luciano died in 1962 and pondered whether it was the blown international deal that bugged him to death. The French Connection drug route went through Turkey to France and then to the United States through Canada. The French Connection was headed by the Corsican criminals Paul Carbone, who ran the labs, François Spirito, Antoine Guérini, and Auguste Ricord, Paul Mondoloni and Salvatore Greco. Ricord reportedly laid out the cash from money he stole from the French Gestapo during the German occupation of France He also had some help from the CIA, who gave him seed money to get rid of communists from the loading docks of Corsica in 1947.

In the 1950s, the Corsican mob made an alliance with Lucky Luciano creating a super-syndicate for the production, refining and distribution of heroin. The group got opium from Turkey, refined it into heroin in Lebanon and shipped it out from Marseilles, France, into Europe and the U.S. The dope made its way into the Canadian and American markets through the Bonanno and Magaddino familes, allegedly, the mob fathers always denied it.

The French Connection could be a silent film. It has whole scenes that are done in another language without subtitles or dubbing. There are long stretches, almost the whole film actually, where there is no dialogue at all. Unlike stage plays, movies don’t need a lot of conversation and don’t necessarily suffer if you don’t know exactly what is being said. Look at the execution scene in John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre, you don’t have to speak Spanish to know exactly what is going on. The conversations in French are obviously filled with useful information that is going over most of the audience’s head, but we catch on right away when the movie returns to the streets of New York.

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Before The French Connection, Friedkin directed the then-pinnacle of gay celluloid, The Boys in the Band, in 1970. Friedkin made The Exorcist in 1972. He was a master at creating a trend-setting niche. He broke ground, probably without realizing it, just going for the shots. This movie should be boring and the book should be too. It’s basically just standing around and waiting, but even the pizza Popeye Doyle (played to perfection by Gene Hackman, who won won the Best Actor Oscar for his role) eats on the curb is part of a cat and mouse game that’s so wonderfully played out on the streets.

The movie ends with the bust. The book continues into proving the bust. A lot of work goes into it, papers to fill out, documents to file, typing, all the stuff that happens on the TV series Barney Miller, plus gathering a grand jury and changing warrants to match arrests. Like the adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, the movie ends on the high note rather than settle into something that might mar the legend by overstaying its welcome.

The book and film differ in the details, the names are changed, the streets might be a few blocks away from one source to the other. The book had quite a few scenes that could have been rendered wonderfully on screen. Popeye Doyle is great chasing down suspects as Santa Claus as an opening on film, but the movie could have used the book’s scene with Egan in semi-drag with his pants hiked up under his dress, running past the traffic cops. Maybe Hackman was self-conscious about his gams, maybe the director thought it would be a little too humorous and take away from the trajectory, but I think it fit better than Santa. There is a scene in the book where Patsy’s brother Tony goes after a cop with a crowbar.

The French Connection created the cliché of the cop who leads with his intuition and pisses off other cops. It was drawn from the book’s description of the usual tension between FBI and local law, which is also now a well-worn stereotype. The book gets more heavily into some of the gruff humor that goes on behind the scenes during claustrophobic stake-outs. The movie didn’t try and make hiding in a cellar waiting for someone named Tony to pick up another dozen or so kilos of white powder exciting.

The book barely skims the personalities of the cops, not to the extent that Joseph Wambaugh would do. It mentions that Buddy has a perennial bachelor friend who is getting married. Buddy’s got to cut his best man speech short in order to be in on a collar. Eddie loses his girlfriend to his overzealous nightwork, even though she does hand him a good lead. This dynamic also became a kind of running gag in cop movies.

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I like gritty films. I don’t mean seedy or particularly graphic or violent, but the film quality. The stock, there’s something about it that seems made for New York movies. It doesn’t matter if they’re filmed in Arkansas, if the stock is right, there’s something that feels like the neighborhood. I think Lovelace captured the gritty look of ’70s movies better than American Hustle, which got more credit for it. Part of the reason grit worked so well in New York at the time is because there was something about it that captured the spirit of the young neighborhood directors. Scorsese, I’m looking at you. The shots were more important than the stock and the stock had an inborn character, like New York City usually becomes a character in movies that are shot there. Friedkin was from Chicago, it’s kind of like a borough right?

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A lot of movie connoisseurs of today are bugged by grit in film. But hey, think of it like roughage in your diet because you miss out on a lot of great performances and writing when you can’t get past the imperfections of film grade. So many things are airbrushed or CGI’d or in some other way perfected, when the only thing that a cinematographer has to set up perfectly is the framing, because a great shot is a great shot.

Some of the film looks like it came from surveillance cameras. The static camera catches a frozen moment of time that would look just as natural on the five o’clock local news as it does sandwiched between the perfectly framed angles of the city.

The French Connection brought a sense of realism to Hollywood’s law enforcement films by throwing the book at them.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol is an old school geek who cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.

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5 out of 5