The French Connection, 50 Years Later
Some years ago, I interviewed former NYPD narcotics detective turned producer Sonny Grosso about his 1979 true account of a police corruption investigation gone bad, Point Blank (co-written with Philip Rosenberg), asking him what someone writing a cop story could gain from working with a real cop they couldn’t get from research. In his typically blunt fashion, Sonny told me, “Six million fucking things.”
And that’s what, in 1971, The French Connection had that other cop movies at that time – and most since – haven’t had; those six million fucking things that made it one of the most authentic portraits of cops and the often dirty job they do. As one of the real-life narcs who cracked the real-life case that inspired the movie, Sonny was an advisor on the film, and one of his most treasured comments on the movie was the reviewer who told him Connection “…smelled like a real cop story!”
From Andrew Goldman who, who spent thirty years at HBO/Cinemax, finishing as vice president of Program Planning and Scheduling, and now teaches at NYU’s Lawrence Tisch School of the Arts:
“The terms ‘timeless classic’ and ‘hard-boiled thriller’ have been overused many times over the years in relation to police dramas. The French Connection set the bar and has stood the test of time. It’s gritty ’70s realism and cinema verite style has been copied (usually deflected as an homage) many times—and most come off as pale imitations.
“The characters are instantly relatable as people we would know. No easy ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ stereotypes. Gene Hackman’s ‘Popeye’ Doyle is portrayed as a rough around the edges, obsessed and mean-spirited cop, while Fernando Rey’s drug smuggler is a charming European sophisticate.
“The French Connection’s limited budget at the time worked in its favor as it was shot very fast in a semi-documentary, guerrilla fashion. New York City at this time was a battlefield, and the imagery on the screen makes you uneasy—but you cannot look away as you never know where the propulsive story is headed.
“Today, 50 years later, it holds the same power as when it was first released.”
Along with its classic car chase, that’s what’s most took away from the movie; its gritty, sooty, urban feel, it’s no-holds-barred, warts-and-all insider’s worldview. There are no major acting set pieces, few quotable quotes (unless you consider, “Hold it!” and “Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” quotable quotes), and the plot – two obsessive NYPD narcs trying to bust an upcoming dope deal – is so straightforward and linear, in synopsis it could read like an episode from any formula cop show from the last fifty years.
From AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan:
“From the opening scene in which a street corner Santa Claus (Gene Hackman as narc “Popeye” Doyle) chases a drug dealer through the streets of Bed Sty, slams him up against a wall and asks, ‘Are you still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?’, The French Connection proved that great writing, directing, cinematography, casting, and acting can take an ordinary plot and yield an absolutely extraordinary film.”
And what’s extraordinary are those six million fucking things.
The real French Connection case occurred in 1961 when two NYPD narcotics detectives – Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso – tipped to a heroin shipment coming in from Marseilles (thus the “French” in French Connection) which was then a major supplier of heroin to the U.S. Their work on the case led to the largest heroin bust in U.S. law enforcement history. Author Robin Moore picked up on the story, turned out his account of the case, The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy, in 1969. The book was a bestseller, and as often happens to books that become bestsellers, sparked interest as a possible movie property.
The case alone – a massive drug bust – was dramatic enough, but Egan was a real-life character designed for the movies. He was aggressive, liked to work in disguises, the line Gene Hackman uses in the movie — “Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” – was a non sequitur Egan would throw at a suspect to throw them off balance. He was fearless; in a Huffington Post interview, Sonny labeled Egan…the bravest cop I ever knew…the greatest cop I ever worked with.”
But sometimes he could be too aggressive, even reckless. In the same interview, Sonny repeated a warning from his mother: “’I know Eddie’s going to make sure you come home every night, but what I worry about is that one time, Egan might not come home.” And, Sonny once admitted to me, “I loved the guy, but he could be a pain in the ass sometimes.”
Egan was a bit of a hot dog and it sometimes grated on his fellow cops. Sonny told me a story about one time finding a dog turd in Egan’s station house mail cubby. Sonny decided it was time to set his colleagues straight. Using his favorite analogy (everything was always “like a broad”), Sonny explained to them, “Guys, it’s like a broad. You may not like her, but she’s my wife, and you gotta respect her!”
Impressive as the bust was, and colorful character that Egan might be, the property had trouble finding a home in Hollywood. According to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, the property had “…been turned down all over town.” Even its eventual home at 20th Century Fox initially passed five times, before Richard Zanuck, then chief of Fox, made an offer. Zanuck, writes Biskind, said, “I got an extra two million dollars in a drawer here, if you guys can do the picture for that, I’ll make the thing.”
But there were still bumps going forward.
I don’t know this for a fact, but the problem may have been G. David Schine who is listed as Connection’s executive producer. I haven’t been able to find any information on how Schine became involved in the project or what he actually did , but up until Connection, his biggest claim to fame was being a friend of Roy Cohn’s and an aide to commie-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy, and as a subject of the infamous Army/McCarthy hearings (those are the ones where attorney Joseph Welch called out McCarthy with, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”). According to Sonny, Zanuck, after some expensive flops like Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), knew his days at Fox were numbered. Some of the participants in the project were haggling with Schine and it looked like the clock might run out on Zanuck’s offer. Zanuck reached out to Sonny and pressed for a quick deal “…because I’m gonna be fired in a few weeks.”
Biskind reports that Zanuck had warned (presaging Josh Sapan’s observation), “If you muck (the movie) up, it’ll just be another episode on Naked City,” a one-hour cop drama from the early ’60s. But at first glance, the team lining up to make The French Connection wasn’t particularly promising (Schine apparently had little to do with the production, and he would only ever produce one other film: a long-since-forgotten documentary about action films unimaginatively titled That’s Action ).
Phil D’Antoni had become attached to the project as producer. Up until 1968, D’Antoni had never produced a feature film. He’d produced TV specials like An Evening with Elizabeth Taylor and a documentary mini-series called The Proud Land, but it was the strength of his first – and, up until then, only – feature that seemed to qualify him for The French Connection. But, oh, what a single credit it was: Bullitt.
Bullitt shattered a lot of tropes about movie cops. Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt wasn’t a stoop-shouldered, world-weary flatfoot but a San Francisco sophisticate who dressed like a GQ cover model and drove one of the coolest of cool cars, a Shelby Mustang. Director Peter Yates gave the movie a unique, sun-burnished sense of West Coast hipness. And, of course, there was that car chase which became the instant gold standard for cinematic automotive mayhem.
But if Bullitt had given the cop movie a new gloss, it had also striven for a new kind of authenticity as well. McQueen had done “ride-alongs” in patrol cars to ground his portrayal of a SFPD detective (supposedly, he modeled his character after David Toschi, an SFPD inspector who was one of the lead investigators on the Zodiac killings). And Bullitt’s desensitization to the ugly violence that was a part of his world was equally novel at the time. D’Antoni was looking to rival what he’d managed to accomplish on Bullitt, a deft balance between high-caliber Hollywood entertainment and this-is-how-it-is realism.
D’Antoni may only have had one film under his belt, but it was one of the biggest hits of the 1960s. What director William Friedkin had under his belt at the time were four back-to-back flops.
Friedkin had come up from television, then graduated to features as a – Biskind’s description – “take-no-prisoners iconoclast…difficult and abrasive.” Friedkin was committed to making minimally plotted arthouse-type flicks; as Biskind quotes him, making “…obscure Miramax type films before Miramax.” But after four stiffs, fear he might never get another gig, and some advice from Howard Hawks – “People don’t want stories about somebody’s problems or any of that psychological shit” – Friedkin was ready for a change in course when D’Antoni, based on an early documentary of Friedkin’s, reached out to the director with The French Connection. According to Sonny, D’Antoni’s decision was based on a simple, “He (Friedkin) felt right.”
No filmmaker, no matter how talented, gets their vision on the screen single-handedly, and the abrasively gritty, sometimes near-documentary feel Friedkin was after owes a lot to the creative team he put together for the film (of Connection’s eight Oscar noms, four were in technical departments): Friedkin reached out to avant garde jazz composer Don Ellis for the film’s jarring, atonal score (which would win Ellis a Grammy); there was Gerald B. Greenberg’s Oscar-winning editing; and probably nobody contributed more to the look of the film than cinematographer Owen Roizman, another dark horse pick. Roizman had begun in TV commercials but before Connection had only lensed one low-budget, unreleased feature.
New York City at the time of Connection’s filming seems, compared to the city today, like something from another planet: wildly dysfunctional, broke, crime-ridden, and dirty. If you want a picture of what the city was like in those days, try Midnight Cowboy (1969). The city seemed, to the world at large, like a dying metropolis, a great city in horrifying decline. Roizman captured the soot, the grime, Sonny Grosso’s proudly held “smell” of it all with footage that sometimes seemed to be caught by a news crew on the prowl (best example: a scene involving the bust of a crew of car thieves; Roizman would be nominated for an Oscar for his work).
Adapting Moore’s book into a screenplay fell to Ernest Tidyman. The movie is a fictionalized (some might argue highly fictionalized) version of the case, but there was still a hunger for all concerned to get an authentic feel into the film. “I told Billy (Friedkin),” Sonny told me, “‘If you can show what cops are like below the surface, you don’t have to make them pretty or nice, as long as you get across why we do what we do’.” To that end, Sonny and Egan were brought on as consultants and regularly gave Tidyman input to the screenplay.
But then the picture had to be cast. In the documentary The French Connection 30th Anniversary Special, Friedkin admits that Gene Hackman “…wasn’t our first choice…he wasn’t our tenth choice.” The part of “Popeye” Doyle – the fictionalized version of Egan – was offered to a dizzying array of possibilities: Bullitt star Steve McQueen, New York columnist Jimmy Breslin, even Egan himself. But Richard Zanuck had offered a guiding principal, partly as a consideration of the movie’s tight budget ($2 million even in those days wasn’t much money), but partly to capture the right feel for the film: “I’m not looking for big stars. I’m looking for reality.”
Hackman had been toiling in the TV outfield throughout the early 1960s, with small and supporting guest spots in everything from The FBI to The Invaders, then moving up to supporting roles in features, earning an Oscar nod for his work in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but execs at Fox were worried he’d never carried a major feature. Friedkin held out; Hackman, he thought, was perfect.
Hackman wasn’t always so sure. From Michael Munn’s biography, Gene Hackman:
“Men like (Egan” have all this violence inside of them, and that would scare the hell out of me. But that’s not the way I am at all, even though people think I am.”
Remember that scene Josh Sapan referred to? Chasing down a suspect, slamming him around a bit? From Munn’s book:
“Hackman remembers the scene was shot more than twenty-seven times, ‘and I really had to hit him. Between takes he kept saying it was all right and he’d smile and we’d do it again. I felt horrible’.”
So much so, Hackman wanted to quit and was only stopped by Fox threatening to sue him for breaking his contract. Hackman would go on to win an Oscar for his career breakthrough performance.
Roy Scheider, who’d also been kicking around the business for years but had finally gotten some attention for an articulate albeit sleazy pimp in the paranoid thriller Klute (1971), was cast as “Cloudy” Russo, the fictionalized version of Sonny Grosso.
Fittingly, Egan and Grosso were also given parts in the movie, Egan the larger part as Doyle’s aggravating and aggravated superior; the kind of guy Egan would have given agita to in real life!
More than Bullitt, The French Connection marked a major evolution in the portrayal of the police in movies. It was a change that was, in large part, a reflection of the times according to veteran film critic Stephen Whitty:
“I think for a long time movie cops were seen as upright, solid, even kind of boring heroes (thanks, Production Code!). That view darkened a bit in the ’50s, as norish dramas introduced us to police officers who were screwed up (Detective Story ) or outright crooked (Touch of Evil ). But movies didn’t approve of them, and they were seen as aberrations. The policeman is your friend.
“By the early ’70s, though, as crime rates rose and the country lurched rightward, those Constitution-shredding cops came to be seen as almost role models – at least in white-oriented movies (in Blaxploitation films, they came off quite differently). Popeye is brutal, racist, violent; Harry Callahan is even worse. Yet, they are seen as, not only men of their times, but men the times demand. Even Serpico – the protagonist in a liberal movie about an incorruptible good guy – bends rules and is tough with suspects. A rough world needs rough men.
“The French Connection is part of that shift, in which the tough-guy cop has gone from being the occasional villain to a regular anti-hero (if not outright hero).”
Shooting took place in New York for five weeks through the 1970-71 winter. Sometimes the weather was so bitter, equipment froze. Real druggie locations were the settings for some scenes. Michael Munn writes that “Friedkin’s unofficial location manager was one ‘Fat Thomas’, a wheelman for local drug gangs who had been arrested fifty-two times.”
“There was a push to get out of the studios and onto the streets in the ’50s, a trend encouraged by the lighter-weight sound and camera equipment that had sprung up during the war. That gave crime movies (like, say, Call Northside 777  or Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man ) a documentary feel, right down to their being shot on the actual locations where the real-life events may have occurred. William Friedkin continues that, but he pushes it further, with handheld shots, ‘stolen footage,’ and propulsive editing.
“In fact, in some ways the style is the point. In terms of the story’s structure, do we really need to begin with that prelude in France? In terms of the plot, how crucial is that character Popeye chases so relentlessly, and finally shoots on the subway steps? Not really, I’d argue, but The French Connection was Friedkin throwing out the Jack Webb rulebook on how to make a police story – two dogged detectives, carrying notebooks and asking questions before finally apprehending the guilty parties. Leaving the squad rooms, patrol cars and polite manners behind, abandoning the just-the-facts approach, Friedkin shot the film like one long extended chase, with his cops constantly rude and on the run. And it gave the genre a jolt.”
Adding to that sense of the real and unscripted, according to Peter Biskind, Friedkin used Tidyman’s screenplay only as a guide, a la Robert Altman. “From his (Friedkin’s) point of view, the dialogue was ad-libbed and improvised.”
Phil D’Antoni and William Friedkin were not always in accord throughout the shoot, and often argued over their competing visions. “Fox threatened to fire Billy many times…,” Sonny told me, but despite their differences, “Billy had a partner in D’Antoni.” It was, in his view, their collaboration that produced the end product.
To help the actors get the required feel for their characters, Sonny and Egan spent three weeks with Hackman and Scheider taking them out on the streets with them while they executed searches and rousts.
One of the most-remembered scenes (outside of the car chase) from the film is a scene where Doyle and Russo storm into a ghetto bar that’s a hangout for low-level drug peddlers. While the police conduct in the scene would no doubt give a civil rights lawyer fits, according to Sonny, “Eddie must’ve done the thing in the bar a dozen times in those three weeks (we were with the actors). I’d seen him do it a thousand times before.” During the first week, Sonny said, Hackman and Scheider would stand outside the bar while he and Egan went inside. Second week: the actors would be inside the bar with Sonny and Egan. “The third week, (Eddie and I) waited outside while Gene and Roy did it!”
Obviously the most talked-about, most-cited sequence from the movie is its car chase, but it was not part of the true story, nor even initially Tidyman’s screenplay. D’Antoni had been clear that he wanted a chase to outclass the one in Bullitt, but Friedkin kept putting off the issue.
“We did have a chase,” Sonny told me, “but it was completely different.” There was to be a scene where one of the suspects boards a subway shuttle and loses Hackman and Scheider. The pair were then to run up to the street and race across town to head off the bad guy. But D’Antoni, said Sonny, got the idea of moving the chase above ground.
Bullitt had its hero chasing the bad guys up and down San Francisco’s cinematically-thrilling hills, but the streets were broad and empty. In contrast, The French Connection would send its hero rocketing through traffic-choked Brooklyn streets chasing a runaway el train.
In the anniversary special documentary, Friedkin explains how the chase, as it ended up, was shoehorned into the narrative. He and D’Antoni pieced it together in a long conversation working backward: they needed the bad guy on the train which meant Hackman would be in the car which meant he would have to commandeer the car etc.
When it came time to shoot, Michael Munn writes that Hackman insisted on often handling the chase car himself “…often reaching speeds of up to ninety miles an hour.”
One of the most insane pieces of guerilla moviemaking was shooting part of the chase. From Michael Munn:
“Friedkin wanted one long uninterrupted shot of the chase taken from Doyle’s point of view. A 50 mm lens was placed inside the Pontiac to shoot through the front windscreen, and a 25 mm lens was mounted on the bumper. No special arrangements had been made to ensure the roads would be clear and traffic lights controlled. It was simply a sheer piece of audacious filming: (stunt driver) Bill Hickman (who’d been one of the drivers in the Bullitt chase) got in the car and drove at high speed for some twenty-six blocks, swerving down wrong lanes and gunning through red lights.”
No doubt Gerald Greenberg’s snap-crackle-pop editing of the chase clinched him his Oscar win.
Back in 2010, I interviewed director John Dahl (The Last Seduction ; Rounders ) and he told me about putting together a four-hour reel of movie car chases as research for one of his projects. The day he screened the reel “You’d be surprised how many people came by and wanted to see that.” According to Dahl, by a wide margin, the chase people thought was the best was from Bullitt “Which is funny because, by today’s standards, it’s incredibly long, it doesn’t have a lot of cuts, there’s not a lot of damage. The French Connection came in a close Number Two.” Dahl told me it wasn’t just the skill with which these two chases were assembled, but that they seemed…possible. As opposed to more extravagant, over-the-top sequences in films like The Rock (1996) or Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Those might have been bigger, more kinetic, more destructive, but “People didn’t care.”
Biskind quotes Friedkin, the one-time arthouse wannabe, saying “…I had this epiphany that what we were doing wasn’t making fucking films to hang in the Louvre. We were making films to entertain people and if they didn’t do that first they didn’t fulfill their primary purpose.”
When I spoke with Sonny, he seemed to understand that. Yeah, they wanted the film to be authentic…but they also wanted people to come see it. “In French Connection, the balance was just right.”
Well, almost. There was only one scene to which Sonny strongly objected. It comes at the end of the chase.
Hackman has been chasing a sniper who took a few shots at him and took down an innocent bystander. The train has crashed. The shaken sniper (Marcel Bozzuffi) climbs out of the train and staggers along the platform to the stairs leading down to the street. Hackman has climbed out of his wrecked car, is following him on the street below, and they finally come face to face at the stairway: Bozzuffi frozen at the top, an exhausted Hackman propped against the bannister at the bottom, pistol aimed at the man above. Bozzuffi turns to run, Hackman shoots him in the back.
“I asked Billy not to have Hackman shoot that guy in the back. I was so pissed off at him for doing that!” But after seeing how the scene played for moviegoers, Sonny reluctantly admitted “…it worked. The audience cheered like hell! He was right!”
The French Connection was a massive box office hit as well as critical success. The film would not only be one of the top earners of 1971, but #60 for the decade. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 98% positive critics score and 87% positive audience score. In 2005, the film was selected to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and the AFI has it listed among its “100 Greatest American Movies.”
The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won five: Best Picture (the first R-rated film to do so), Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing (the film was also nominated for Supporting Actor [Scheider], Cinematography, and Sound).
The film revived Friedkin’s floundering directorial career and coupled with the even bigger box office success of his next project – The Exorcist (1973) – turned him into one of the hottest names of his generation of directors. It would be a short-lived peak: expensive flops Sorcerer (1977) and The Brinks Job (1978) and failed attempts to bring back the kind of gritty cop thrills of The French Connection with To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) led to a cooling career.
Hackman went on to become a major star, and four years later, with Jaws (1975), Scheider, too, saw his career escalate.
Sonny Grosso, whom I proud to call a friend, went on to become one of the most decorated policemen in the NYPD’s history. In all, he spent 22 years on the force. After The French Connection, he became a frequent advisor on crime films shot in New York, and segued into becoming a film and TV producer after he retired from the force. My friend Sonny passed away last year at the age of 89.
Eddie Egan was asked to retire from the NYPD after the release of The French Connection. He continued to act, often playing police officers and died in 1995 of colon cancer at the age of 65.
That authentic feel Friedkin & Co. worked so hard to capture was often imitated, but never equaled, and after a time, it seemed there was little appetite for even a semblance of reality. Instead, a parade of cop movies featuring increasingly weird odd couple pairings, buddy-buddy repartee and ever-escalating over-the-top action – Freebie and the Bean (1974), 48 Hours (1982), Partners (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984 plus two sequels), Running Scared (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987 and three sequels), Red Heat (1988), Turner and Hooch and K-9 (both 1989), Loose Cannons (1990 with Hackman), Downtown (1990), Heart Condition (1990), The Hard Way (1991) ad infinitum overwhelmed the idea of cop movies that might have any whiff of realism to them.
When indie Narc came out in 2002, one of the comments I recall hearing most often was how it was a refreshing return to realistic cop movies “like The French Connection.” Narc was a modest indie earner finishing 154 for the year.
And even with the shift away from documentary-like realism to cops practically as superheroes, The French Connection and policiers of its generation gave the next generation of cop movie new cliches. Stephen Whitty: “What cop movie doesn’t feature a lead character with a drinking problem, a broken marriage and a rebellious attitude? What’s changed, though, is now they’re played by good-looking movie stars, and the movies have upbeat endings. Back then, they could be played by a rumpled character actor like Gene Hackman, and the movie could end in defeat.”
One of the times I interviewed Sonny was back in 2011 and he said as much. I brought up how the commercial mainstream had become dominated by sci-fi and fantasy, action spectaculars and the like, and asked if the life-sized cop thrillers like The French Connection could make a comeback. He was doubtful. Fox had acquired the property without the benefit of focus groups, without audience research, without talk of demographics and hitting the four quadrants. “In those days, they were still making decisions on guts.” With the way the industry – and the audience – had changed, he didn’t see a revival as a realistic possibility. I said I doubted if the movie could even have gotten greenlit today.
“Maybe you could make it today,” Sonny said, “But Popeye’d have to be way better looking. And they’d give him a girlfriend. And there’d have to be more action. Lots more action.”
And I have no doubt, that whole pick-your-feet-in-Poughkeepsie business would have to go. I can just picture some young, L.A. development exec frowning over that. “Poughkeepsie? Where the hell is a Poughkeepsie? And what’s this guy picking his feet have to do with anything?”
And you’d say, “That’s the point.” But he’d already be red-penciling it out.