The French Connection at 50: William Friedkin and the Undermining of the Lawman
William Friedkin can be a tricky guy to pin down. An Oscar-winning director whose filmography consists of both culture-defining smashes and polarizing flops, Friedkin has a tendency to be simultaneously open and wittily cagey — he seems like someone who has no qualms about saying exactly what he’s thinking, but on reflection you can’t always shake the feeling that maybe he was pulling your leg. Ostensibly a work more of transparency than misdirection, his 2013 memoir The Friedkin Connection reads as a relatively unfiltered look at the internal and external creative process: no one would accuse Friedkin of humility, but on paper he’s happy to apportion credit and blame to himself and others in (maybe slightly less-than-) equal measure.
Perhaps most interestingly to film aficionados, Friedkin devotes the majority of his memoir to taking readers behind the scenes of the bulk of his productions. Unsurprisingly, he spills substantial ink talking about The French Connection: the film that brought him his first big success, paved the way for the rest of his career, and lent its name to his autobiography four decades later. As he talks about The French Connection’s inception, you’d be forgiven for thinking Friedkin was essentially in the tank for the two detectives whose 1960s drug investigation inspired the film; despite some skepticism about the inflated egos of Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso (“[t]hey took full credit for the case, even though there were dozens of New York City detectives and members of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics…involved”), Friedkin genuinely seems to admire both them and the work of law enforcement more generally.
This unfortunately includes the more problematic (putting it lightly) aspects of policing, including stereotyping of drug users and dealers and, most egregiously, the racial profiling of Black men. Friedkin notes that Egan and Grosso impressed him with their handling of some of the “baddest dudes” he’d “ever seen” while he shadowed them during raids on bars and restaurants serving primarily Black clientele. He even defends Egan to star Gene Hackman, who in the process of learning to play Popeye Doyle (Egan’s fictional surrogate in the film) told his director “I think he’s a racist, I think he uses his power over people to intimidate them” — Friedkin’s response of “[y]ou see the kind of people he deals with” exemplifies the dangerous and insidious framework, continually perpetuated, that the ends justify the means when it comes to dealing with those that we’ve all-too-expansively deemed “criminals.”
All this is to say that it’s far from shocking that The French Connection still finds itself talked about as the pinnacle of the “supercop” genre fifty years later. Premiering in 1971, the same year that Clint Eastwood debuted Dirty Harry, Friedkin’s film stands as the prestigious and acclaimed version of a now-familiar archetype: the lawman (rarely any other gender) who plays by his own rules, dispenses justice how he sees fit, and is celebrated because he gets the job done. The junkies and flunkies who fall in the crossfire are mere casualties of the everlasting war on crime. Sure, his methods may be questionable, but it doesn’t matter — ethically speaking he may be a bad person, but goddammit he’s a good cop.
But here’s the thing that makes The French Connection so interesting: despite its reputation (and Friedkin’s own commentary) it isn’t really portraying the kind of supercop whose willingness to work outside the lines makes them good at their job. In fact, it’s quite the contrary — Popeye Doyle may be playing by his own rules, but in Friedkin’s hands that doesn’t lead to glory; instead, he turns out to be of the most incompetent cops I’ve ever seen depicted on screen.
Now, the folks marketing The French Connection certainly didn’t think this was the case. Take a look at the first tagline on the poster: “Doyle is bad news — but a good cop.” Even more telling is the pitch a little further down: “The time is just right for an out and out thriller like this.” A little clunky, sure, but it makes a key point — culturally, there might have never been a better moment for a film about a cop’s obsession with bringing down a drug ring.
On June 17, 1971, fewer than four months before The French Connection hit theatres in October, President Richard Nixon held a press conference in which he declared “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” Though this wasn’t the country’s first national anti-drug initiative, it marked a turning point for what became known colloquially as — reflecting Nixon’s rhetoric — the war on drugs. Though Nixon’s statements to the nation and to Congress paid lip service to the notion of sympathy and rehabilitation for those struggling with drug addiction, the implicit and explicit fear-mongering on display provided little confidence that ramped-up enforcement tactics would lead to a system that addressed social, economic, or health needs in anything close to an effective manner.
Those concerns were far from unfounded of course: the war on drugs continued to harshly expand, perhaps most notably (but not solely) during Ronald Reagan’s Presidential term, and it’s only recently that we’ve really started to see some of those policies walked back. Even then, progress has been achingly slow — laws on the books in several states still permit jail time for marijuana possession — and it’s always been clear that American drug laws at best disproportionately impact people of color and at worst actively target them. John Ehrlichman (Nixon’s White House Domestic Affairs Advisor at the time, himself a convicted felon for his role in the Watergate scandal) admitted as much to late journalist Dan Baum in a report for Harpers:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Such was the environment into which The French Connection was released: moviegoers being told by their elected officials that the country was under siege by a terrible scourge that could only be driven back by law enforcement officers willing to put themselves on the front lines. The film premiered to general acclaim and would go on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Contemporary critics seem to have been mostly taken with the film (Pauline Kael being a notable exception), and while there’s acknowledgement that the film (intentionally) doesn’t treat Popeye Doyle as a paragon of humanity, the sense that it does treat him like an effective cop lingers. Roger Greenspun of The New York Times called Popeye “a tough cop in the latest measure of a fine tradition, he exists neither to rise nor to fall, to excite neither pity nor terror — but to function. To function in New York City is its own heroism, and the film recognizes that….” Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune opined that “[t]here is only one problem with the excitement generated by this film. After it is over, you will walk out of the theater and, as I did, curse the tedium of your own life. I kept looking for someone who I could throw up against a wall.”
Kael, for her part, gets right to the heart of the matter, noting in The New Yorker that “[t]he movie presents him as the most ruthlessly lawless of the characters and yet — here is where the basic amorality comes through — shows that this is the kind of man it takes to get the job done.” For her, it’s a cynical choice by the filmmakers, allowing for audiences on both sides of the political spectrum to read in Popeye what they please: he’s either a model of corruption or a man putting in the necessary work. That ambiguity continues to be highlighted as the film has aged, passing through years of critical and commercial reevaluation, but a glance at the current critical consensus still leaves one with the feeling that while Popeye’s methods tend to be rightly questioned and often condemned, his skills don’t face the same scrutiny.
Once again, Kael circles the matter near the end of her review when she hones in on The French Connection’s end titles, which run down the relative slaps on the wrists received by the film’s major criminal players: “The purpose of giving us this information is…to tell us to get tougher judges and to make tougher laws, and to provide an ironic coda showing that Popeye’s efforts were really futile.” It’s a reasonable takeaway, but I’d go a step beyond her second point, giving the film what — in my humble opinion — serves as a much more interesting modern reading. It’s not just that the coda shows Popeye’s efforts were futile: the coda is the button on the film’s depiction of Popeye Doyle as a guy who’s really really bad at his job.
Let’s go back to the beginning. It’s clear early on that Popeye’s a racist, actively targeting Black men for arrest, engaging in racially-motivated police brutality, casually tossing off slurs without a care in the world. There’s no question that — in the minds of most reasonable people — that sort of behavior alone makes him a bad cop; unfortunately, America’s history tells a different story and we know it to be equally clear that racism is far from disqualifying when it comes to law enforcement. But we also learn that, though he and his partner lead the narcotics bureau in arrests, they’re not actually bringing in any serious criminals. He’s a detective making his living harassing folks just trying to get by in their own right — far from a “supercop.” Well, despite that, perhaps he still has a preternatural sense for when crime is afoot? Obviously he latches onto something big this time around (hard to think how we’d have a movie otherwise), but his superiors hint at the fact that his past hunches have been more likely to get officers killed than lead to a major takedown. The initial portrait painted of Detective Doyle’s prowess is far from rosy.
As he starts to make some headway in the case, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that, hey, maybe Popeye knows what he’s doing after all. But, the film’s three main setpieces — as electrifying and well choreographed as they are — each end up disabusing you of that notion.
First, Popeye winds up tailing Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the brains of the titular drug operation. He follows Charnier into the subway station and onto the platform where, as they wait for a train, Doyle’s every move screams “I’m a cop: fake phone calls, dumpster diving for discarded evidence, suspicious newsstand ordering — it’s all here. As the train arrives and the two do a painfully obvious step-on, step-off routine, it becomes abundantly clear that Charnier had caught on Doyle almost immediately. Doyle’s lack of savvy means Charnier easily gets the best of him — Doyle is left standing on the platform as the doors close and Charnier speeds away, waving cheekily at the foiled detective.
Despite how easily Charnier escaped, he apparently decides that Doyle is enough of a pest that it’s better to just get rid of him. He sends his bodyguard/contract killer to take Doyle out, but the guy flubs the hit, murdering an innocent bystander instead before making his getaway via elevated train, setting up The French Connection’s most famous sequence. Doyle commandeers a sedan and gives chase under the tracks, nearly killing a woman and her baby in the process, finally catching up to the assassin on the station steps. The distance is such that Doyle isn’t going to make up the ground in a foot race, and as the banged-up killer turns to flee Doyle shoots him. Now, our man is banged up, he wasn’t sprinting out of range, so Doyle shoots to incapacitate, right? Wrong. Doyle shoots him point blank in the back, not only ending a man’s life, but eradicating any chance to question him or — more likely — try to cut a deal to help bring the whole operation down. Sure, maybe you get nothing out of him, but Doyle’s poor decision-making immediately burns all possible bridges.
Which brings us to the big finale. Against all odds Doyle and company have pretty much cracked the case and set up a roadblock for Charnier, forcing him back to the abandoned factory where the big drug deal just went down. The cops round up most everyone else, but Charnier gives Popeye the slip yet again. Popeye and his partner head into a warehouse, guns drawn. A shadow moves, Popeye swings around and shouts “drop it,” but doesn’t give the mysterious figure the chance to show himself: he’s unloading his weapon before he even finishes the command. Of course it’s not Charnier — how could it be? Doyle’s shown himself time and time again to be an ineffective detective and his incompetence has finally caught up to him. It would have been bad enough had he killed Charnier, but he’s instead murdered a federal agent. Game over.
So we’re back at those end titles:
“Case dismissed for ‘lack of proper evidence’.”
“Served four years in a Federal Penitentiary.”
“Never caught…believed to be living in France.”
“Transferred out of the Narcotics Bureau and reassigned.”
Kael’s interpretation of these makes sense, especially for 1971. It’s easy to see these cards capping the film and feel like they’re either making a political statement (“tougher judges...tougher laws”) or a thematic one (irony and futility). But I encountered my fair share of cops — both good and bad — during my time practicing criminal law, and to a trial lawyer’s eye these results indicate neither irony nor futility: they’re the natural consequences of a case riddled with shoddy police work from the very beginning. I watch The French Connection and think about how absolutely screwed the prosecutor would be; your lead detective is a racist with a history of police brutality who killed two people during this investigation — not only can you never put him on the witness stand, he’s tainted your entire case with his incompetence. Doyle’s not working outside the lines to get the job done, he’s working outside the lines and making it impossible for his legal partners to get their jobs done. Of course he got transferred out of the Bureau, who would possibly still want him there?
Now, it’s hard to tell what, if anything, Friedkin means by all this. He’s a canny filmmaker who comes across as focused on technique and emotional aesthetic above most everything else; one gets the sense that he’s much more interested in putting on a show for the audience than making any sort of sweeping statement (his response when asked what The French Connection’s final offstage gunshot means: “I have no idea”). And obviously filmmaker intent is only a part of the equation (many would say a very small or even a nonexistent part) when considering a film, but parsing out that intent can certainly enrich or deepen the viewing experience — particularly when, on its face, the film in question seems like it could be out of step thematically with a modern audience. The French Connection has endured in large part because of its sheer cinematic excellence, but is it possible Friedkin’s depiction of unimpressive policing was more surface level than viewers may have realized?
Unfortunately for those watching in 1971, the final key to unlocking The French Connection wouldn’t come until 14 years later. Watching 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. in close proximity to Friedkin’s earlier effort is uncanny in a funhouse mirror sort of way — all the same pieces are there, but slightly warped and greatly heightened. The chilly blues and grays have been replaced with sun-drenched reds and oranges. Bundles of drugs have become artfully crafted counterfeit bills. Both our charismatic criminal and our obsessive lawman are now younger, hipper models, with Willem Dafoe and William Petersen taking the reins from Rey and Hackman, respectively. There’s even an attempt to one-up The French Connection’s most famous sequence: car chase under an elevated train? How about a car chase the wrong way down the highway?
But most importantly, we have another lawman whose lack of ethics is equally matched by his lack of skill. Spoilers ahead — hot on the trail of the counterfeiting ring responsible for his partner’s death, Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (Petersen) does the following:
Falls asleep at a stakeout, allowing a murder to take place right under his nose;
Steals evidence from a crime scene;
Caries on an abusive sexual relationship with an informant, threatening to have her parole revoked at every turn;
Gets absolutely clowned on multiple times by John Turturro (playing a total doofus of a criminal like only he can);
When his superiors understandably turn down his request for thousands of dollars for a sting operation, kidnaps a suspect in order to rob him; and
Gets that suspect killed, who — in yet another French Connection reflection — turns out to be an undercover federal agent.
It’s glaringly familiar, so much so that you wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the criminal mastermind went free and Agent Chance found himself transferred, buried in some office where he can’t embarrass the shield anymore. From a certain perspective you wouldn’t be that far off, but Friedkin twists the knife in a manner that both shocks and makes perfect sense.
Think back to the ending of The French Connection, where Popeye kills a federal agent and gets himself kicked out of narcotics. That obviously isn’t how the real story ends, as far as we know, and makes Doyle look terrible in a way that doesn’t really comport with how Friedkin seems to feel about Popeye’s real-life inspiration, but for Friedkin and his creative partners that’s simply how the story had to end. To Live and Die in L.A. is similarly an adaptation, this time of a novel by former Secret Service Agent Gerald Petievich (credited as co-writing the screenplay with Friedkin), and similarly makes a shocking departure from the source material: in the film, Chance’s inability to handle the basic tenets of police work result in him taking a bullet to the face, killed before the movie’s final showdown. Friedkin notes that this wasn’t in the novel or in the screenplay: “Halfway through production,” he says, “it occurred to me that Petersen’s character, Chance, had to die.” He justifies it due to Chance living “constantly on the edge.” Read between the lines and watch the film and we see what that really means: just like Popeye Doyle before him, Chance ultimately paid the price for his incompetence.
A director’s filmography is like a puzzle, and not always a linear one. If you subscribe to an auteurist theory — or even if you don’t — the pieces often fit together in ways that clarify, enhance, and recontextualize each other. If, like me, you can’t watch To Live and Die in L.A. without thinking about The French Connection, then shouldn’t we accept that perhaps the former might have something to say about the latter, perhaps something missed the first time around? With fresh eyes and a retrospective lens, it’s easy to see how the more straightforward versions of The French Connection would merely fit into the Dirty Harry mold, and what we actually have on our hands is a sly — and not even that subtle — skewering of the supercop archetype that it, in fact, helped originate.
In the spirit of full transparency, maybe I’m giving Friedkin too much credit here, attributing excessive intent to an award-winning director who’s just trying to make thrilling, compulsively watchable movies. And maybe it’s not even intent that we’re ultimately talking about: film is a uniquely expressionistic art form, one that the viewer can ascribe meaning to in a variety of different ways. If intent ever truly matters, it arguably matters less and less the further away from the film’s inception we get, when the question becomes not “what does it mean” but “what can it mean.”
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that the breaking points reached over the past several years in regards to police violence can make it hard to watch or rewatch a film like The French Connection. I wouldn’t blame anyone for choosing to avoid the experience altogether. However, I also imagine I’m not alone in wanting — sometimes to a fault — to find as much value in art as possible, even (especially) if that requires layering on my own experiences and ideas.
Though a film’s value is of course not inherently tied to its depictions, the depictions do matter and they do have power, and this understanding comes with a certain level of cognitive dissonance. How you deal with that dissonance for any given film stems from whether you want to treat it like a time capsule or a Rorschach Test. For me, to view The French Connection as a time capsule means I’m watching it in the context of 1971, understanding that Friedkin was giving a subset of the population what Nixon made it seem they wanted — “bad news, but a good cop.” I can enjoy the technical aspects of the filmmaking, but I’ll leave with a bad taste in my mouth. Or, I can take the Rorschach Test approach and view The French Connection on my own terms. I can question how so many misread the film’s message, admire how every setpiece furthers the thematic underpinnings, and marvel at how Friedkin underlined the thesis a decade and a half later.
In reality, I know that the context matters. A film doesn’t physically change, and for that reason alone it will always be a time capsule. But I can still choose how to view it, and the way I see it? The evidence is all there, plain as day — Popeye Doyle isn’t just bad news. He’s a bad cop. Case closed.