Some movies prove so influential that it’s hard to see how groundbreaking they were at the time. With The French Connection, director William Friedkin drew on several cinematic trends on the ascent in the early ’70s—location shooting, documentary-inspired camerawork, urban grit, character actors with little movie-star glamour, visceral action scenes—and combined them in a tough, fact-inspired tale that pitted the NYPD against international drug traffickers. In the process, the film helped define what crime movies looked like for the rest of the decade, and beyond.
It wasn’t, of course, a singlehanded achievement. Remove one element—from Owen Roizman’s cinematography to Don Ellis’ score—and it becomes a different film. Still, there’s no contribution more crucial than Gene Hackman’s, whose Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle often seems like the hero only by default, an often unlikeable tough guy willing to do whatever it takes to get his man, and to protect a populace he didn’t seem to like and didn’t much like him back. He almost seemed like a force summoned up by the tougher times.
In this clip, New York Times critic A.O. Scott discusses the film: