The trouble with breaking new ground is that if your innovation is popular enough then eventually you will become the victim of your own success. Such is the case with William Friedkin’s hard-boiled crime drama The French Connection. When this movie came out in 1971 it seemed to break all the rules. Before this movie the thin blue line between cops and criminals in the movies was about three feet wide. When the 70s began, after the counter-culture movement, there was a massive distrust of authority figures and the decade would see many portraits of cops as opposable clowns.
The French Connection was new in that it grayed the line that cops were supposed to cross in order to catch a crook. Gene Hackman starred (and won the Oscar for Best Actor) as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a New York cop who, along with his partner Buddy (Roy Scheider) get wind of a shipment of heroine and begin a trail of suspects who lead them to The French Connection, French nationalists who are their European link.
What made this film so special was that it wasn’t a cleaned and polished police procedural. At the same moment that television was giving audiences the sanitized “Adam-12,” the movies were breaking new grounds of gritty subject matter. The things that Buddy and Popeye do to get the criminals under control blurs the moral lines of what is expected from a police officer. This was new in 1971 as this film and Dirty Harry showed cops as near-vigilantes who stepped around ordinary procedure.
Those questionable ethics belong to Doyle, a New York narc who is vicious, obsessed and a little bit crazy. At one point he commandeers a civilian car to chase a man who is riding on the El train. Yet, as awesome as it seemed at the time, revisiting The French Connection, I’ve noticed that it’s spark of originality seems to have flamed out. For the rest of the 70s and all across the 80s we got one movie after another about a cop willing to bend the rules to get his man; everything from Dirty Harry to Lethal Weapon. Indeed this movie was the victim of its own success. Can you watch it with fresh eyes? Hard to say.