Thursday, June 4, 2015

Film Friday: The French Connection (1971)

Today we come to The French Connection. The French Connection is a fascinating film that has been recognized by many as one of the best films of the 1970's. Its hero, Popeye Doyle is also routinely voted as one of the top movie heroes, though I find that somewhat questionable. Interestingly, Doyle will become the model for all future cops. Let’s discuss.


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.
Meanwhile, in New York City, we meet two cops: Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider). Doyle and Russo are on the narcotics squad and they go around the city busting pushers and users. In one early scene, we see them chase down a suspect with Doyle dressed as Santa. In another, Doyle and Russo shake down a bar full of black patrons, each of whom seems to be carrying drugs. Finally, we are shown that Doyle is very unpopular with the other detectives because he is blamed for the death of another cop. He and his superiors do not like each other either.

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 follows is a rather clever, interesting and at times tense battle between Doyle and Charnier, wherein Doyle tries to catch Charnier with the drugs, while Charnier tries to kill Doyle and then escape him.

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.
What really made this movie standout, however, was Doyle. Doyle is an interesting character. On the one hand, he's a total jerk. He's abusive in a way that would not be tolerated today even by the worst police departments. We see this in particular in the bar shakedown scene where he threatens with violence and false allegations, where he leaves the appearance of having beaten a patron (who is actually an undercover cop – as an aside, we have already seen Doyle beat another suspect he arrests), and where he appears to steal either drugs or money from the people he shakes down. That makes him an abusive, corrupt cop and a truly unlikely hero.

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.
So why does the audience connect with this train wreck of a cop? Why has he become one of the favorite film heroes of all time? I suspect there's only one reason and it is the reason that makes this film work: Doyle is right. His instincts have led him straight to the biggest heroin deal in history and he's latched onto it like a pit bull to a BBQ-sauce-covered child. There is something about the guy everyone claims is wrong, but who is really right and who fights to prove that which attracts us as viewers. It comes from our love of the underdog, from our love of getting things right, and I think it comes from the fact that so many of us think we are right even as society tells us repeatedly that we are wrong. We want to believe that we know something THEY don't and Doyle represents us in that. He acts the way we wish we could, by flipping his middle finger at everyone else and doing what needs to be done.
Now, there are a lot of reasons why this type of behavior, especially in a police officer, should offend and bother us all, but it doesn't seem to stop us. I think the key in creating this kind of thinking is that Doyle is right. If he had been wrong, I doubt he would be viewed as a hero by anyone. What’s more, I get the sense that society loves to philosophize about abusive cops, but is in reality happy to allow abuse so long as “the right people” are getting the abuse... which speaks volumes about humanity.

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.
At the same time, by the way, it must be noted that Doyle's character wouldn't be that interesting if Charnier wasn't an exceptional villain. Rich, powerful, ultra-smart and with ice water running through his veins, Charnier comes across as a worthy challenge for Doyle. Charnier isn't some cardboard character who will act stupidly at the wrong times to let Doyle win, nor will he devolve into insanity nor will he shoot his henchmen. He is the scariest of villains: extremely competent.



Kit said...

So, Doyle makes Harry Callahan seem like a hippie?

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, In a way, yeah. Callahan is a good cop, but a tough cop. He respects the law and he really only disobeys orders (not the law - with one possible exception in the middle of the film). And he only does that when lives are in danger and the department has become crippled by its own set of rules. The reason he's seen as rotten is that he's quick to use violence or the threat of violence when it will save lives.

Doyle, on the other hand, sees violence as his primary tool. He's also not a good cop. In this case, he plays a hunch and does get the right guy, but his method of policing is most likely to lead to (1) hundreds of failed convictions based on technicalities, (2) constant lawsuits for wrongful arrest and excessive use of force, (3) growing anger between the black community and the cops, and (4) frame ups of the wrong people. He's one of those guys who decides who is suspect is and then sets out to prove it rather than letting the evidence take him where he needs to go.

Jason said...

Didn't they make a sequel to this movie? Did it hold up well?

AndrewPrice said...

They did, but the sequel sucks. Doyle goes to France.

Rustbelt said...

I haven't seen this one, though I've heard a lot about it. To be honest, I've heard more about the real-life French Connection heroin route; with the heroin being smuggled from Sicily to the U.S. and Canada via Marseilles and then into the hands of Bonanno and Lucchese crime families in the 60's and 70's.

It seems the rogue cop goes from law-defending Callahan to law-breaking Doyle to cardboard imitations. Problem is, the rogue cop has been so many times since that it's become a cliche unto itself. At least Callahan and Doyle have reasons for being rogue-ish. The former has to deal with a (figuratively) shackled system and the other is ostracized for (understandably) being a lousy cop.

Too bad the imitations couldn't have bothered to at least give some kind of reason for the rogue behavior. Take out the reasons, add the unlikableness, and you get Ma, Ma, Ma, Ma...what is his name? Matt? Mittens? Mattel? Mittens? And how are the initials JDB involved?

Either way, it seems Callahan and Doyle, great as they were, opened the door for Z-grade rogue cops who were as badly written as they were bad cops and bad men- and all just for the heck of it.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I think another reason Popeye resonates, as did Dirty Harry, is because the 70's had a high crime rate due to the liberal politicians and judges, and people were sick of it, since justice wasn't being done as much as it could be.
IIRC you mentioned this, Andrew, in your Dirty Harry review.

This was also a reason vigilante films were so popular during that time (such as Death Wish) because people like to see the criminal get what's coming to him when the justice system fails.

Not to take away your analysis of this film, because you are correct that Doyle being right resonates also.

IMO, Dirty Harry is more likable than Popeye Doyle, but Popeye is still likable enough to work, and Hackman is brilliant in it.

Excellent post, Andrew!

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I believe the name you are looking for is my my my my Mitchell. ;-)

It is interesting that both Doyle and Callahan have well explained reasons for being the way they are. Both are cops who are facing bosses who genuinely aren't interested in catching the bad guy -- Harry's bosses are PC liberals who are just looking to find the right place to land the blame whereas Doyle's boss is concerned with shifting to different kinds of cases than dealing with drugs. Doyle is also presented as a real jerk, whereas Harry has more of the feel of someone unfairly attacked for not joining the herd in their latest stupidity.

By the time you get to characters like Mel Gibson's character in Lethal Weapon or the dozens of others that followed... McBain!!!, there really doesn't seem to be a reason to be a rogue cop anymore. Their commanders like them and give them wide latitude, even though they yell at them when things go wrong, and the system happily ratifies their actions time and again. Dirty Harry, by comparison, never won the support of the system even when he was absolutely right time and again.

So really, you do have something silly going on in that these copycat characters lack the underlying reason to exist as these two cops have.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! I think you are right. Doyle's popularity has to be traced to the fact that this was the 1970's and crime was insane. The French Connection isn't an attack on the system like Dirty Harry was, but it still presents the loner cop out there "fighting for us" in a world where the news was full of judges and politicians worrying about the rights of thugs over victims. And as I note in the review, I think we tend to like cops roughing up "the right people." So with the war on drugs just beginning and everyone talking about drugs being this scourge on humanity and the system seeming paralyzed by liberalism, it felt good to people to think that there was this bulldog out there chewing the ass of drug dealers.

In terms of likability, I do think it is vital that he was right. If he had been wrong, then people would have hated him. I also think it helps that Hackman is so fascinating as an actor whenever he's on screen. His character may have been an abusive corrupt turd, but Hackman comes across as someone you like to see on film. I'm not sure the film would have worked with someone else in the role. Take a Vic Morrow for example and I think people would have been repulsed.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Wait Andrew, Murtaugh and Riggs were busted down to traffic cops for a little while, lol. And Riggs was a basket case, at least for the first film. After he got better they brought in the psychiatrist so he could make fun off her.

They kept their jobs because of the union. Yeah, that's it. :)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Audiences are also very forgiving if the cops are funny.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, That's true. Humor helps! LOL!

Making him crazy always felt like a cop out to me (no pun intended). It felt like an easy and phony explanation for why his character was different than the supposed cop cliche of Joe Webb.

In any event, he's just the most prominent example. That period is full of them. Axle Foley in Beverly Hills Cop was another perfect example. And beyond that, there are hundreds of others. Basically, every cop in the movies since the 1980s is now a rogue cop who "plays by his own set of rules" and "gets results!"

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Yeah, it was almost like Riggs had a Death Wish, but I never felt like he would actually kill himself. Although, I must admit I thought the jump scene was original.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"Basically, every cop in the movies since the 1980s is now a rogue cop who "plays by his own set of rules" and "gets results!""

And destroys millions of dollars worth of property in the process, but hey, that's what. insurance is for, lol.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, it's interesting that you mention the name, "McBain." It turns out there is, in fact, a McBain movie. (It involves rogue Vietnam vets getting together 20 years later to take down a South American government. (Just let it sink in.) According to Wiki, producers of this movie actually blocked 'the Simpsons' producers from calling their Arnold character 'McBain' over rights issues. (That's why the call him Rainier Wolfcastle.)

If you're interested, here's a Clip. Warning: NSFCWP*

And on Axel Foley, let's not forget that, in addition to being both right and funny, he had the advantage of his kicka** theme music!

*- Not Safe For Christopher Walken Purists

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, They do more damage than Godzilla whenever they do their job. And yet, except for a quick argument with their chief and a two day suspension, no one cares.

In reality, the recklessness with which they approach their jobs would get them fired on day one. They endanger the lives of every civilian and every other officer for miles around!

I never felt he would kill himself either. It felt like a movie ploy to give you instant character.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I had no idea. What a joke!

True. You need a cool theme song or you're a nobody!

Koshcat said...

I know this movie received a lot of awards and often listed as one of the top movies of all time but I never really connected with it. It has been a long time since I saw it but I just remember the plot being a little too convoluted and Doyle being such a jerk. Some of it may be because I saw the movie after seeing Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hill Cop. However, I saw Bullet after all these and liked it better. I like Harry better too.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I feel kind of similar. I do think this is a must-see, but I personally don't like Doyle at all and it's hard to connect with the plot. Bullitt is a great film.

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