I Saw a Film!
A grimy, violent film that is basically a series of chase sequences unleashed in a NYC of so long ago (about 50 yrs now) that it’s hard to imagine it’s actuality. We have here an unleashed cop, Popeye Doyle played by Gene Hackman, who has been motivated to make something happen that’s bigger and more meaningful than his usual, and endless, street level junkie busting. But, we aren’t terribly concerned with his motivations, this is an action law-enforcement film from the 70s and it owes a lot to Italian cinema of the era. This is something we don’t like in our movies anymore. We aren’t looking at heroes (we desperately seem to want them squeaky clean), we’re looking at real people under real duress being pushed past–and pushing themselves past– their reasonable limits. The French Connection is based on an actual true crime circumstance and the actual “Popeye Doyle” is in the movie (on an old commentary he says he wasn’t impressed with Hackman playing him at first, but Hackman grew on him) playing the role of captain Simonson (Eddie Egan).
Popeye Doyle’s is a story about a cop who has become entirely obsessed with the job. He’s beyond serving the public, he’s become his own entirely invested motivational factor. We are let into his apartment one time, in a jokey fashion after having picked up a pretty on a bicycle. Good for him, but this side of him, this playful and even possibly romantic aspect, soon doesn’t fit our character. He becomes obsessed with the workings of these well off French drug smugglers. He is on the street freezing his ass off, chewing on stale food, dumping the remains of his caustic coffee on the sidewalk, while he watches the crooks dining in style. The camera pulls back to refocus on the espresso being poured. In the commentary I mentioned earlier, this is the scene that most brought home reality for the people who were actually involved. The crooks were always living the high life, while our public servants endured on the bottom.
Scheider too is in top form as Doyle’s partner, a few years before chasing after Jaws, this was his job. Keeping up with Hackman’s loose cannon, being the “good cop” to Hackman’s wild cop. There is police brutality, and there is public put in terrible danger as Doyle pursues, in possibly the finest car chase ever filmed, a killer, one of the “frogs” as our NYC narcs put it, onto a damned train. Doyle flags down a random car on the street, car-jacks it, and chases the train as it rides blithely along on the raised track. Before long pedestrian and baby carriage have all been deeply threatened and by the end the old boat of a car is destroyed, but Doyle manages to gun down the baddie (and he is a baddie, there’s no question of that). If things are going to go wrong, they go wrong, and in unexpected ways.
This is a brazen film, and while it won awards in its day, it is said audiences were entirely stunned by it. I saw it once as a kid and found it utterly confusing. Rewatching it now I can see why. While we follow Doyle and Scheider and hope for the best resolution to the criminal activities, we’re at a loss for efficiency and hoped for intelligence. The cops basically out-endure the criminals, but, stick around for the final moments as we learn that not all is a wrap. And Doyle’s single-mindedness costs lives as he reloads and grits his teeth.
The French Connection is an unsatisfying story, especially to our sensibilities in an age of endless supermen and women. But, it is necessary in teaching us about the realities of street level police efforts, and miscarriages. One hopes that we’re doing much better jobs than this and other films like Serpico reveal. We need to get back to depictions of real people, and we need to get back to depictions of real duress and get away from presenting god-figures who can manage any and all atrocious and boggling situations with aplomb. If only for the purpose of truly appreciating people who do their jobs properly.
This is running free on Prime (USA) and if it’s something you’ve never seen, it’s been time for a long time.