So 1971's The French Connection won a Best Picture Oscar thanks in large part to its game-changing chase scene, which should happen more often. I'm not saying the Academy Awards should always make decisions based on who had the best chase scene, but it should at least be a factor: Raiders of the Lost Ark should've had to stare down The Road Warrior for Best Picture in 1981, but neither of those was even nominated, and Ordinary People won despite having no car chases at all. (UPDATE: My apologies, Raiders was actually nominated in '82, but lost to Chariots of Fire, which only proves my point.) This is obviously a vast miscarriage of justice, and Ordinary People should have to give up that trophy, just as 2010's The King's Speech needs to recognize artistry and hand its award over to Fast Five.
All of which makes The French Connection a real rarity: It's the only truly great action movie ever to win Best Picture (sorry, Gladiator). And that chase scene is truly a thing of beauty, a grimy, low-tech blood-pounder that looks no-joke dangerous, in part because it was. (Director William Friedkin left in all the real accidents that were supposed to be near-misses.) Gene Hackman, as the hard-boiled cop Popeye Doyle, has been taken off his big drug-dealer case, and he's heading home to his Brooklyn apartment dejected. Suddenly, the lady pushing the baby carriage near him falls down dead, and Hackman realizes there's a sniper on a nearby rooftop gunning for him. He chases the sniper to an elevated subway platform only to watch him board a train, so he commandeers some poor slob's Pontiac LeMans and takes off after it, staring up at the track above him while desperately trying to avoid every other car.
Unlike a lot of chase scenes, this one gives you the sense that chasing someone through busy city streets would be a really fucking hard thing to do. Driving through Brooklyn is difficult enough even if you're not hunting a French assassin: You have to pay attention to all these cross streets coming in at weird diagonal angles, with people coming at you from all sides. So Hackman has to mentally juggle all these other people with his target, and he has to have the single-minded pitbull tenacity to keep chasing the guy even after he causes god knows how many accidents. The movie, which had been tense and methodical up until then, goes into meth overdrive, as cinematographer Owen Roizman speeds up the film speed slightly to make it all even more frantic. It's a scary, visceral scene.
The rest of the movie is scary and visceral, too, though probably entirely in the ways the filmmakers probably intended. I rewatched the movie in the immediate aftermath of that cop murdering Walter Scott in South Carolina and attempting to cover it up by planting his taser on the victim, and in an era when every week seems to bring a new case of staggering police brutality, Popeye Doyle doesn't exactly come across looking like a hero. Hackman casually spits out racial slurs with deep, volcanic resentment. He beats the shit out of a suspect after disarming him. He almost singlehandedly stop-and-frisks an entire bar full of black customers and then does everything he can to escalate the situation. Leading into the movie's big case, we see him prosecuting every little drug arrest he can find, no matter how insignificant. Even his commanding officer thinks he's doing too much: "Ya grab a bellhop because he's got three joints in his sock!" And that amazing chase scene ends with the image you can still see on the movie poster: Doyle shooting a fleeing adversary in the back. It can all be hard to watch.
But The French Connection is still an excellent, beautifully made movie, even with all that. It's a gray and grainy look at a New York that no longer exists; just look at all the storefront montages that don't show a single corporate chain. It's grisly in the way that so many early-'70s movies are, with copious use of fake blood that looks like Tabasco sauce. The movie does everything to remind you that its world is fucked up, as when Doyle argues with his colleagues on the scene of a gruesome pileup, barely anyone even mentioning the dead bodies laying around. The cat-and-mouse scene of Doyle trying to follow French dealer Alain Charnier and then losing him is about as good as filmmaking gets; Hackman is generally charismatic but unstable, making this maybe the greatest case of Gene Hackman being Gene Hackman in a movie. As his partner, Roy Scheider does great work conveying how hard it must be to deal with this asshole every day. I also love the mob chemist who gets all excited, spouting '70s hepcat lingo about how pure Charnier's heroin is.
So this still deserves to be seen, even if it leaves you a little queasy. And here's a suggestion: Watch it while assuming that Doyle is the villain and Charnier is the hero. The movie does everything it can to highlight the differences between the two, showing Doyle eating a slice of pizza outside in the cold while Charnier eats his dinner in a fancy restaurant. But so, who would you rather be in that situation? Doyle is a psychotic dickhead who doesn't even call for backup when he's chasing a gunman through Brooklyn and endangering lord knows how many lives; as the movie roars to its conclusion, he's still chasing Charnier when he should obviously be dealing with some of the carnage he just caused.
Meanwhile, Charnier is a smooth, sophisticated badass with a beautiful girlfriend; a good relationship with his daughter; and a slick way to get his drugs through a New York port. He knows how to eat and how to dress. He has an undercover cop killed in the opening scene, but he at least expresses some remorse about it. And when his gunman goes on a kill-crazy rampage, it's after being explicitly told not to do it. (Twista had the right idea, casting himself in the Charnier role—sort of—in his 1998 "Mobstability" video.) The French Connection was probably a great root-for-the-bad-guy movie in 1971. Today, it might be the single greatest root-for-the-bad-guy movie ever made.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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