So for this month’s Blind Spot, I wanted to take a look at a good, intense thriller. Having a look around at lists for the thrillers held in the highest regard, The French Connection stood out as the obvious choice for me. William Friedkin is one of those directors who’s work I should have seen more of but I’ve only seen one of his films (Killer Joe) prior to this. I wanted to get at least one Friedkin film for my blind spot selections, with it being between The Exorcist and this, but since I’m not normally the biggest fan of horror films, I ended up going with this and I’m glad I did. This is one of the most effective, tense thrillers of the 70s that I’ve seen.The film concerns New York narcotics detectives Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo who are undertaking an investigation into Sal Boca, a shop owner who they suspect of having ties to the drug trade. During the investigation, a major drug deal is being undertaken with French heroin smuggler, Alain Charnier, arranging for $32 million worth of heroin to be transported into the US, with Boca acting as a middle man for Charnier, bringing Charnier into the sights of Popeye and Cloudy. The main strength of the film comes with it’s intelligence. The way all the characters act is very intelligent, no stupid decisions being made at any point, the drug traffickers and the police trying to outsmart each other at every turn. This creates a very engaging game of cat and mouse, the police know Charnier is involved with something but the question is whether or nor Charnier will escape before they get the evidence of the drug deal. This intelligence is best seen when Popeye and Charnier are trying to outsmart each other through the movement of subway cars, this creating a very tense and darkly comedic scene. The intelligence of Popeye and Cloudy is also seen right at the start through the way they operate, the use of Christmas iconography disguising their real intentions and using fake drug busts to talk to informants, there’s a keen intelligence to all the main players that makes the film really engaging to watch. The film also does a good job showing the dangers of obsession, Popeye’s obsession with catching drug kingpins, in this case Charnier, being shown to have caused serious harm to others in the past and is going to cause harm here, it being clear that Popeye has no life outside of his job, it’s eaten away at everything so that even social moments are framed in the context of work, making Popeye such a compelling character.
In terms of the performances, the film is very strong. Gene Hackman does a great job as Popeye, showing the obsession the character has and the desire to do good, the anger and frustration that builds as his obsession grows being very impressive, along with his intelligence, particularly the way he tricks information out of them by overwhelming them with irrelevant questions that they give up the information to get Popeye to stop. Roy Scheider meanwhile is strong as Cloudy, his deadpan demeanour being a great contrast to the more vibrant performance of Hackman, blending into the background in some scenes, which fits well with the character. Fernando Rey is impressive as Charnier, showing his ruthlessness and how he will use anyone to get things done, such as his use of French TV personality Henri Deveraux, along with showing a keen awareness of what is going on, picking up on the investigation quite early on. He also does a good job showing the impatience of the character, wanting to get things done quickly, despite the risks that speed creates, which works well in contrast to Harold Gray as Weinstock, who knows the risks in the trade. Solid performances are also seen from Bill Hickman on the law enforcement side, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bouzzuffi, Benny Marino and Patrick McDermott on the drug side, whilst the performances from Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, the real life officers Popeye and Cloudy were based on, adds an air of believability to the film.
On a technical level, the film is very impressive. The music is used at just the right moments to create tension, the location work is strong and the direction by William Friedkin is excellent. Friedkin’s direction helps create great tension throughout the film, the highlight being the car chase. This is one of the best car chases put to film, the speed of the driving, all the obstacles in the way and the tension over whether he’ll catch up with the train in time makes this such an engaging scene, made all the more intense through what we see on the train and the lengths to which the assassin will go to ensure that he escapes from Popeye, it’s easy to understand how this has become one of the benchmarks for car chases.
Overall, it’s easy to see why The French Connection has the reputation it does as one of the top tier thrillers. The intelligence of the script, the power of the acting and the thrills of Friedkin’s direction all come together to create an incredible tense, engaging thriller, one that takes the overused aspects of the genre and breathed new life into them, making them exciting all over again.
My Rating: 4.5/5