Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, The French Connection premiered in theaters on October 7, 1971, starring Gene Hackman as Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy Russo, two NYC cops in the Narcotics Bureau who stumble onto a drug smuggling job with a French connection. The film was based on the sensational true story of real-life detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso.
The gritty New York City backdrop was a character all its own. Director William Friedkin and his cast and crew blazed through the city streets utilizing guerrilla-filmmaking to achieve his vision. This week marked its 50th anniversary and Gene Hackman joined William Friedkin to discuss the celebrated classic.
Starting with that car chase, Friedkin admits that it was obviously done illegally. “I was like Captain Ahab pursuing the whale. [I had] a supreme confidence, a kind of sleepwalker’s assurance As successful as the film was, I wouldn’t do that now. I had put people’s lives in danger.”
Randy Jurgensen, the NYPD detective who would later consult on Friedkin’s controversial Cruising and Donnie Brasco, films based on his cases, was on set to flash his badge when they were questioned by authorities during filming. Friedkin, himself, took over the camera work, as he didn’t want to risk their lives, and they went for it! The Pontiac Le Mans rigged with three cameras, tore up the streets and the train tracks, driven by stuntman Bill Hickman, “We couldn’t afford a camera car.”
Friedkin explains how to gain permits to shoot on the train itself. You need $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica. “‘If I give you permission to do this, I will be fired,'” the city official allegedly reasoned when Friedkin asked why there was no need for a return flight.
As for Gene Hackman, who gave his first interview in a decade, his thoughts of the film are simple. “I haven’t seen the film since the first screening in a dark, tiny viewing room in a post-production company’s facility 50 years ago. If the film has a legacy, I am not sure what that would be. At the time, it seemed to me to be a reverent story of a cop who was simply able to solve and put a stop to a major crime family’s attempt to infiltrate the New York drug scene.” He does allow that his turn as Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle opened quite a few doors for him. “The film certainly helped me in my career, and I am grateful for that.”
As for making another film? “I don’t know. If I could do it in my own house, maybe, without them disturbing anything and just one or two people.”
“I think we’ll get away with this,” Friedkin recalls telling his producer when shooting wrapped. “But don’t get your Oscar speech ready.” When asked how he thinks new viewers should interpret the film, Friedkin said “I think the takeaway is it’s a pretty damn good action film.”
Friedkin would get the surprise of his career as The French Connection was nominated for 7 Oscars and took home 5, including Best Picture (Philip D’Antoni), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Hackman), Best Director (Friedkin), Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Ernest Tidyman) and Best Film Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg).
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the car chase to beat all car chases. Just in case you haven’t already busted out your copy of The French Connection to go on the ultimate ride-along. This news come from NYPost.