Top 100 Movie Review: No. 067 – The French Connection (1971)

Ranked 067 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as May 2017). Watched December 2019.

Cast: Gene Hackman (Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle), Roy Scheider (Buddy “Cloudy” Russo), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Tony Lo Bianco (Sal Boca), Marcel Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli), Frédéric de Pasquale (Devereaux), Bill Hickman (Mulderig), Ann Rebbot (Marie Charnier)
Director: William Friedkin
My rating: 6.0 / 10

In Marseille, an undercover police detective follows Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), who runs the world’s largest heroin-smuggling syndicate. The policeman is assassinated by Charnier’s hitman, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi). Charnier plans to smuggle $32 million of heroin into the United States via a film star Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale) which sets off the major plot of this movie.

In New York City, detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) spot Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) entertaining mobsters involved in narcotics trade, eventually tailing them and establishing that a major deal with about to go down which is later confirmed by an informant.

Based on this information the detectives convince their supervisor to wiretap the Bocas’ phones and are joined by federal agents who have tension with Popeye based on a previous failed collaboration that it appears resulted in the death of a police officer.

To get Popeye off their back Charnier authorises his assassination which Nicoli fails to complete which results in the death and severe injuries to several citizen’s and eventually Nicoli himself being killed by Popeye.

The police eventually impound Devereaux’s Lincoln Continental. Cloudy (Roy Scheider) notes that the vehicle’s shipping weight is 120 pounds over its listed manufacturer’s weight which helps them discover the heroin concealed in the car. The police restore the car to its original condition and return it to Devereaux, who delivers the Lincoln Continental to Charnier.

Charnier drives to an old factory on Wards Island to meet Weinstock and deliver the drugs. Charnier and Sal drive off in the Lincoln, but hit a roadblock with a large contingent of police led by Popeye. The police chase the Lincoln back to the factory, where Boca is killed during a shootout while most of the other criminals surrender.

Charnier escapes into the warehouse with Popeye and Cloudy in pursuit. Popeye sees a shadowy figure in the distance and opens fire a split-second after shouting a warning, killing Mulderig. Undaunted, Popeye tells Cloudy that he will get Charnier. After reloading his gun, Popeye runs into another room and a single gunshot is heard.

Post the last scene, via a title card, we are informed that only very minor sentences are handed out, along with some acquittals, with the largest sentence being Devereaux who served four years in a federal penitentiary for conspiracy. The minor sentences caused by the “lack of proper evidence”.

What’s to Like
The riveting chase scheme which starts with the attempted assassination of Popeye which results in the chase of would be assassin Nicoli. The chase sees Nicoli flee on a train while Popeye chases in a commandeered car. This eventually results in Popeye Nicoli in the back.

What’s not to Like
It’s difficult to get behind the morally compromised Popeye and his actions apparently lead to perpetrators to suffer only minor sentences which given the deaths, the value of the illegal drugs and the investment of government resources is a poor outcome.

The movie is based on Robin Moore’s 1969 non-fiction book The French Connection. It tells the story of New York Police Department detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, whose real-life counterparts were Narcotics Detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, in pursuit of wealthy French heroin smuggler Alain Charnier.

Despite winning five academy awards this is the first movie on the Top 100 list I struggled to enjoy mostly due to the lacklustre outcome (based on real life so understandable) and the questionable policing tactics by the leads which makes you have little sympathy for them.

Given the poor outcomes and lack of a clear message it’s surprising this was even made into a movie. The drug smugglers are bad people, the FBI are bad (or at least incompetent) and you would hope that the NYPD detectives would end up in jail for their actions, in particular Popeye.

The acting is however first rate despite the story, the cinematography is excellent and I’m guessing shooting across continents was consider very exotic at the time. The chase scene is the real hook and highlight of the movie making this a passable movie but probably not one of the best of all time.

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture (Philip D’Antoni) – winner
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Gene Hackman) – winner
  • Best Director (William Friedkin) – winner
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Ernest Tidyman) – winner
  • Best Film Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg) – winner
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Roy Scheider) – nominee
  • Best Cinematography (Owen Roizman) – nominee
  • Best Sound (Theodore Soderberg and Christopher Newman) – nominees

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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