1971’s The French Connection clocks in at #93 on the AFI list.
The movie opens with some shots in France and a murder in a stairwell.
Next, we meet Popeye Doyle, played by Gene Hackman and his partner, Buddy Russo, tossing a largely African-American bar and then running down and beating a suspect. After beating him they try to get info about drugs from him, but to no avail. It is during this, that we hear the famous line “have you been pickin’ your feet in Poughkeepsie?”, a nonsense line that Popeye uses to confuse suspects.
Back in France, we meet Alain Charnier, who is supervisor a dock expansion in France and mentions that he is heading to the US, for reasons unknown. We later learn that he will be accompanied by a film star, Henri Deveraux, who is supposedly looking at locations to shoot a film.
Back in Brooklyn, Popeye invites Buddy out for a drink, then reveals his ulterior motive, that he is casing a small-time crook named Sal Boca, as he has been associated with bigger names in the drug trade. Sal owns a small shop called Sal and Angie’s with his girlfriend.
Popeye goes to see an informant and finds out that there is supposedly a big shipment of heroin coming in next week from somewhere.
Popeye goes to a bar and gets drunk, Buddy finds him the next morning handcuffed to his bed by a woman, either a prostitute or someone he picked up the night before. They head out and follow Sal to a restaurant where he eats with Alain. There is a funny contrast of Buddy and Popeye eating pizza on the street and Sal and Alain enjoying fine dining.
Popeye follows Alain, but Alain makes him and tricks him off a subway car. Alain heads down to DC to meet with Sal without a tail and lets him know the deal has to go down by the end of the week.
At the scene of an unrelated fatal car wreck, Popeye argues with FBI agents assigned to the case that they should keep pursuing their leads. The police chief tells him that they are off the investigation. Walking down a street a short time later, a sniper attempts to shoot Popeye. Popeye chases him to a subway but can’t catch up to him before the car departs. This starts a long chase where Popeye takes a car from the street and chases the train car, wrecking it several times, before ultimately shooting the sniper when he gets out of the train after it has crashed.
Buddy tracks down Henri’s car in a garage and he and Doyle stake it out. They arrest some guys who approach the car, but they turn out to just be car thieves. After that, they impound the car and strip it down but find nothing.
Henri goes to the police station looking for his missing car.
Buddy figures out that the cars weight is too heavy and they ultimately find the drugs in the floor board. They give the car back to Henri without saying anything to let the deal go down.
Alain drives the car to the deal spot and money is exchanged for the 120 pounds of heroin. Popeye has a bust set up and Alain drives right into it, then attempts to flee back to the deal scene. A gunfight ensues and Sal is killed in the fight. Most of the rest of the guys surrender but Alain is nowhere to be seen. Popeye goes into the building and accidentally kills one of the FBI agents. Alain gets away. There is a post-script under which most of the remaining suspects either get minimal time or get away, except for Henri, who gets 4 years.
Of the movies on the list that I have watched thus far, this was honestly the hardest to get through. Most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional and undeveloped. Popeye is a sort of despicable human – mean, violent, abusive, racist and doesn’t even seem to care when he kills an innocent FBI agent. The big chase scene is entertaining, but a lot of the rest of the movie drones on. And, boy, was New York ugly in 1971 – dirty, run down looking and unappealing. Maybe the point of the film was to give viewers an insight into how messed up policing was in New York in 1971. Or maybe it was just supposed to be a cops and robbers film. I’m honestly not 100% sure, but I didn’t love the movie. Gene Hackman has exactly one speed in the film, hot and bothered, and there is no subtly, empathy or personality to most of the performances. This would not be on my list of the 100 best movies ever made. I suspect its placement on the list is due primarily to the fact that this was the first in a long string of police dramas over the next couple of decades and its chase scene has often been copied (and is very well done.). It was #70 on the original AFI list and fell 23 places to 93rd in the 2007 list. I suspect it would be left off a new list entirely.
Production Quality 7/10
Rewatch Value 5/10
Overall Score 23/40
Next up, the gangster classic, Goodfellas.