Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
If the Best Picture Oscar winners prove to be worth anything, they can at times prove to be a sturdy time capsule. If Casablanca was reminiscent of an America that was about to shocked out of its isolationism and thrust head-long into the great cause of the Second World War, then The French Connection may very well be a mirror reflecting one of the most violent decades of the 20th century. Fresh off of a decade that wrought assassinations and tide-turning violent protests, the crime rate in the new decade was at an all time high. Old social standards had broken down in America revealing a primal society seemingly at war with itself.
As it had in the past, the movies moved with the winds of change and the notion of law and order as fiction went with it. The line between cop and criminal began to blur; it was no longer good enough to simply send a crook up the river. Movies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish would usher in a kind of lawless vigilantism that just had to end with a slimy criminal laying face up in a pool of his own blood. In the early 70s, true crime made for the best stories. Dirty Harry was based David Toschi*, a lead investigator in the case of the Zodiac killer; meanwhile The French Connection‘s Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle was based on real-life NYPD detective Eddie Egan and his pursuit of The French Connection, an inter-continental drug trafficking operation.
In the film, Doyle is a loose cannon, a cop who is willing to put the public in danger to bring down a cartel of drug smugglers. This was something new in 1971. The action scenes were brilliant especially the famous chase between a private car commandeered by Doyle and a suspect on an elevated train. Yet, sadly, The French Connection has become dated mainly by its own success. It would spawn a generation of lone-wolf cop movies that branded this film’s originality into a formula so standard that it would become a cliche.
* – According to an interview in Empire magazine, George Lucas stated that he was interested in the case of The Zodiac Killer and Toschi’s involvement. His name would end up part of the first Star Wars movie. He named Toschi Station after him.