If you work in the film industry join the Cinema Jam community Click here!

Categories: Features

As the detective classic turns 45 this month John Higgins looks back at the impact of one of the most iconic films ever made.


If you are an avid fan of any number of recent TV detective series, you may have sensed, indirectly, a touch of the 1971 action thriller classic The French Connection about them. Winner of 5 Academy Awards and the first ‘R’ -rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar, William Friedkin’s thriller boasts one of the greatest car chases ever and a gritty, documentary feel throughout.

The film was adapted from a book by Robin Moore by screenwriter Ernest Tidyman, who also co-wrote Richard Roundtree’s debut in the blacksploitation classic Shaft around the same time. Authenticity was also provided by real-life detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, the heroes of the original bust, who lent their guidance to lead actors Gene Hackman (as Popeye Doyle, who won the Best Actor Oscar) and Roy Scheider (as Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo).

The film belongs to that core group of classic films that, through their sheer craftsmanship and skill, can be enjoyed repeatedly and still grip at the tenth viewing as much as the first. It is also another of those experimental studio films that was made on a very tight budget amidst a change of studio management, whom apparently (according to Friedkin during a Q & A after a screening in London  to mark the UK Blu-Ray release) didn’t think much of the final cut. History (and box-office) has proved otherwise.


Right from the film’s outset in Marseille, which sets up the foundation for the plot, you are drawn into it’s heart, as Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is given a coat by his lover and prepares to involve an accomplice, TV celebrity Henri Deveraux (Frederic De Pasquale) in the drug deal of the century as a cover in the USA.

The film’s key sequence is an absolute belter of a car chase, which eclipses Bullitt, produced by Philip D’Antoni, who produced The French Connection (and did have Steve McQueen in mind at one point as Doyle, though his pay would have eclipsed the low budget). It is a magnificent piece of film-making, seamlessly edited and utilizes a number of neat film-making tricks to maximize impact. Even today, it has more relevance and resonance to the film, as it is a key plot point and develops out of a previous moment in the film.

The superstar singing trio The Three Degrees (who enjoyed a series of Number One hits in the UK including When Will I See You Again) made an early appearance in the film and became superstars after the film’s release (according to Friedkin in his excellent audio commentary on the DVD)

What also makes the film so real and gripping as well as a viewing experience is the liberal use of drug and drug-based imagery. Another great sequence involves Doyle and Russo raiding a known drug haven bar and taunting and cadging any number of customers in there, leading to the scene’s defining moment when Doyle makes a ‘milkshake’ cocktail of drugs and alcohol. Although there isn’t any scenes involving actual addiction and addicts getting high, the reality and brutality of the drug scene hits home.


The film spawned a sequel, French Connection II, directed by John Frankenheimer. Although it didn’t hit the heights as much as the original film, it is much admired and can be as tense on occasions. Friedkin cemented his place in 1970s cinema history when his next film, also based on a novel, would find it’s way into the hearts and minds of many a terrified cinema-goer. The Exorcist, based on William Peter Blatty’s best-seller, would become one of the biggest horror hits of all time. He is a director that has never strayed from controversy, as subsequent releases like Cruising have attested to.

The French Connection remains a benchmark and a key moment in Hollywood’s evolution in the early 1970s, when independent cinema was gradually seeping into the mindset of many of the emerging talents – and still remains a favorite in repertory releases.

John Higgins

John Higgins is an ongoing Contributing Writer for Film and TV Now, an online Film website, writing reviews and articles. He is also a qualified scriptwriter, having graduated from Euroscript in 2012, and is a member of the BKSTS. In April 2016, he completed an Intensive course in Cinematography with the London Film Academy and is now looking to collaborate on future projects. He also has his own Facebook page: John Higgins - Film Review, which he launched in 2015 - 16.

Posted on Oct 3, 2016

Recent Comments

  • Avatar Thing is that, as more brands continue to turn to animation-centered conten...
  • Avatar Your blog post is very good, I got to learn something new from this blog po...
  • Avatar Good information. Thank you ....