Cult Movies: William Friedkin's game-changing 1971 cop flick The French Connection still packs powerful punch at 50

Gene Hackman gave one of his best performances in The French Connection
Ralph McLean

The French Connection

THE French Connection is 50. I could easily regale you with 50 reasons why that's a cause for celebration but, since we're pushed for space, let me just list a few.

Firstly, in a career peppered with more memorable leading man performances than most, Gene Hackman gives us one of his very finest as hard nut New York cop Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle. A properly tough, utterly believable and morally dubious narcotics cop, Popeye is an unforgettable anti-hero with his constantly bubbling anger and attitude only kept in check by the neat little pork pie hat he wears. He's electrifying in every shot.

Secondly, it's the best film that director William Friedkin ever made. I know that the heads of Exorcist fans will currently be spinning like a 45 played at 78RPM at such a bold assertion, but hear me out.

Where that 1973 shocker plays it for gaudy jolts and stomach churning set-pieces, The French Connection is a much more gripping, and ultimately satisfying, cinematic concoction.

Based on a book from Green Berets author Robin Moore that re-told the story of a genuine $30m heroin bust in 1962, Friedkin's film crackles with an almost documentary feel. racing along through the grimy back streets of New York in a way that had barely been witnessed on screen before. Dirty, uncompromising and above all believable in a way that cop movies simply didn't come close to pre-1971, it was a genuine game changer.

The film is also blessed with a naturalistic script from Shaft writer Ernest Tidyman, who delivers a screenplay that is both crime movie lean and street savvy in equal measure. There's a spark in the dialogue that's reflected in the performances and it ensures the film's most famous spoken sequence, where Popeye and his sidekick Russo (played by the always marvellous Roy Scheider) go undercover as Santa Claus and a humble street pretzel seller, will live forever.

When the duo corner and question a rival, less legal vendor and Popeye utters, with absolute conviction, that infamous line "Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" it makes for one of modern cinema's most enigmatic and wilfully odd moments ever. Rumour has it Friedkin's demands for repeated takes on this violent scene nearly drove Hackman to distraction, almost forcing the actor to leave the set forever.

Then, of course, there's the small matter of the film's central car chase to consider. Doubtless inserted to ape the success of Bullitt, released three years previously, it's been the benchmark for onscreen chase scenes ever since. Wildly exciting, thrillingly shot and delivered with an intensity that's perhaps unequalled to this day, that sequence where Popeye's battered old motor pursues a train carriage with French drug smuggler Nicoli (Marcel Bouzzufi) on board still feels like a huge achievement for all concerned.

These days, conflicted cops with loyal sidekicks who are willing to break the rules and show their nasty side to get the job done are two-a-penny in the crime film world. That wasn't the case before The French Connection. Radical in 1971, it still packs a powerful punch today.

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