The French Connection begins in France, where rich French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is visiting the docks. Charnier runs the largest heroin smuggling ring in the world. He’s working on a plan to bring millions of dollars in heroin to the United States hidden inside the car of his friend Henri Devereaux, a French television personality. The idea is to hide the heroin inside the car's frame or lining. After the car gets shipped to the US, the car can be taken apart and the heroin removed. The heroin can then be passed along to various distributors.
The two stories begin to merge when we are told by an undercover cop during the bar shakedown that all the drugs have dried up on the street. There is almost nothing to be bought or sold at the moment and no one has any idea when more is coming. Doyle and Russo pass this on to their commander, and go to a bar for the night. As they sit at the bar, they see a table packed with mobsters and attractive. Doyle's instincts tell him that there is something "wrong" with that table. He decides to investigate.
By investigating the people at the table, Doyle learns of a connection between the mobsters and lawyer Joel Weinstock, who acts as a go-between between the mob and Charnier. Indeed, Weinstock’s chemists checks a sample of the heroin for purity and advises that what is being bought is worth $32 million on the street. Following Weinstock leads Doyle to Charnier, who is trying to sell his heroin to the mob, who will distribute it.
What Made This Film A Classic
There is so much for which to commend this film. Doyle is a fascinating character. Charnier is a fascinating villain. This was one of the first films to look at the drug trade in a serious way and that made it rather interesting. The scheme used by Charnier is clever and makes for a good mystery toward the end of the film. The film is gritty rather than glossy, which gives it a fascinating ambiance. That ambiance is enhanced both by the setting being a decaying New York (indeed, the police station almost looks like something out of Mad Max) and the comparison between the cold, hard life of Doyle and Russo and the luxury in which Charnier surrounds himself. All of that makes for a great viewing experience.
It's possible too that he's racist, but it's more likely he hates everyone equally. He's a bad cop too in that he plays vague hunches and becomes obsessed with them to the point of needing to be ordered to abandon the hunch, he ignores orders and doesn't care at all about procedures, and he focuses on crimes the department isn't focusing on. None of his arrests would withstand legal scrutiny today, and it's even less likely they would have withstood the more liberal justice system of the 1970's. It is also suggested that these misbehaviors led to other officer(s) being hurt or killed, which seems to be why the other cops don't like him.
Interestingly, Doyle became the template for so many future movie cops. In fact, he became the only acceptable template for cops in modern films: the rebel who plays by his own set of rules and stares down his screaming captain to get the job done! You will see this character over and over in films like the Lethal Weapon franchise, and Doyle was the first. Guys like Steve McQueen in Bullitt played something similar, but never took it to the point of being openly hostile to his superiors. Hackman takes it to that extreme. His Doyle is a wrecking ball and he doesn't care.