With an eerie soundtrack by Don Ellis and a depopulated backdrop of urban decay and moral ambiguity, crime thriller “The French Connection” feels like it needs an introduction by Rod Serling:
Step inside the mind of NYPD Narcotics Division Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, possessor of an insatiable hunger for the chase, and suspicions grand enough to feed it. Doyle has caught a scent of something big going down in Brooklyn, involving a local wise guy with a cover as candy store owner, a visiting French actor, and a bearded international shipping magnate. Doyle’s self-imposed mission takes him down a path no one else can follow: into the very disorder he claims to define himself against. Watch the detective as he pursues a connection corrupt enough to rend his own creed, through a cold, garbage-littered gritscape somewhere east of the Brooklyn Bridge, somewhere west of the ports of Marseilles, somewhere that shares borders- and business contacts- with The Twilight Zone.
What separates The French Connection from most other American crime films that preceded it is that the bad guys win, and that by the time the credits roll the audience is no longer sure how good the good guy is. It is a deconstruction, clearing provincial American notions of ‘justice’ out of our movie theaters, making way for a stark view of the real lever of events- international commerce.
Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is a small-time cop who gets in over his head, stumbling upon a criminal conspiracy that is many dizzying levels above his pay grade. Sure, his partner and superiors are eventually convinced that he has uncovered a massive transaltantic heroin deal in progress, and they bust Brooklyn crook “Sal” Boca and the other American buyers, but the seller, the big fish- internationalist Alain Charnier- slips away unscathed back to his Mediterranean villa and stylish girlfriend. Doyle, in order to achieve even this qualified semi-victory, had to endanger the lives of countless civilians in a number of spectacularly reckless car and train chases. A woman pushing a baby carriage is shot by a sniper during an attempt on Doyle’s life, and Doyle himself, tilting at shadows in a dank decaying building, shoots and kills a federal agent he mistook for the bearded Charnier. One is left wondering if all this carnage was worth it.
We are given reasons to question our protagonist almost at the outset. Doyle would never have discovered the conspiracy, had he not been drinking in a club, spotted Sal Boca, and been disgusted and yet attracted to the other man’s decadence, camaraderie with his fellow criminals, and pretty girlfriend. Later, we are treated to a shot of Doyle driving his car aggressively behind a well-dressed woman on a bicycle, and it is made clear that he takes her to bed. Though the event is consensual, we are nevertheless treated over and over to imagery of predator and prey, with Popeye Doyle cast in the role of the former. What are Doyle’s motivations, at their heart? We are left to wonder.
This is why the film earned a place in the Library of Congress: It marks a turning point. Before The French Connection, the message was that crime never pays, and the good guys always win. After The French Connection, we are forced to ponder the possibility that everyone might have been better off if the good guys had stayed home today.
The French Connection’s true villain is overeager cop Popeye Doyle himself. His crime is that he upsets the order of things.