Number ninety-three on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time is The French Connection (1971). Honestly, I have no idea how to describe this movie in terms of fitting it into my usual model. It follows two New York City Police Detectives, Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) and his partner Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), as they track the arrival of drugs into the city from France. Eventually, they find most of the people responsible and the movie ends. In the middle, there is an intense chase scene as Popeye attempts to catch Pierre “Frog Two” Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi). Following a mad sequence where Popeye commandeers a civilian car and follows at break neck speed (as in he risked breaking the necks of several people, including his own, with his driving), Popeye confronts Frog Two and ends up shooting the perpetrator in the back.
I suppose I should give a little more context to The French Connection. After all, it might be helpful to know why there is a “Frog Two,” or if there is a “Frog One.” Actually, of the principal players, Frog Two is the first we meet. The second is Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). He is Frog One. Frog Two is Frog One’s enforcer, and we see Frog Two murder someone following Frog One in the first few minutes. Confused yet? This takes place in Marseille, France, the port from which they are going to bring their drugs over in French actor Henri Devereaux’s (Frédéric de Pasquale) Lincoln, shipped to the United States while he does some filming in New York. Their connection, hence the title, in the United States is Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco). He is part of the Italian crime family running the city, and he sees this score as an opportunity to enrich himself and move up in the organization’s ranks. So, how do Cloudy and Popeye find out about this situation? That part is a bit murky to me. They are involved in stopping the spread of narcotics in the city, so that much makes sense. One night after their shift, they notice Sal in a night club and they decide to tail him. This leads them back to his humble diner that he runs with his wife, Angie Boca (Arlene Farber). The upper echelon of the mob with which Sal sat the previous night is out of phase with their little restaurant, telling Cloudy and Popeye that something is amiss. Now, Sal looked the part, so I am not sure why he stood out to the detectives. Also, it is not until well into the movie that you discover the reason for why any of this is happening. As I mentioned in the introduction, it is drugs, but nearly an hour goes by until they show you that this is the purpose for Frog One coming to America with Henri. All that stuff I said about the car being used as a smuggling platform is not mentioned until much later. Sure, you see Cloudy and Popeye making drug busts at a number of moments before they fixate on the frogs, but these earlier ones do not seem to have any relation to the French or Sal. Once they do set their sights on the French and Sal, it is a series of repetitive moments as they are tailing either of the frogs or Sal. At one point, citing a lack of results, their boss attempts to take them off the case, which apparently goes completely ignored. This is pretty standard for these kinds of movies. There is also the aforementioned chase scene. It all comes down to Cloudy and Popeye impounding Henri’s car and finding the hidden cache of illicit substances. They then return the automobile to Henri, drugs still inside. It is then taken to the prearranged place where Frog One is exchanging the drugs for money. I am no cop, so forgive my lack of understanding once more. Why did the police not follow the Lincoln and pounce as soon as the deal is made? Instead, they wait until Frog One and Sal are driving away and barricade the roads around the abandoned factory where the exchange takes place. This gives everyone the opportunity to flee. The rest of the officers take care of the majority of those involved, but Cloudy and Popeye go after Frog One. At one point, Popeye fires at and hits somebody he thinks is Frog One, but turns out to be a federal agent. Oh well, I guess, because Popeye carries on looking for Frog One with barely a pause to sort through his mistake. The last thing you hear is one last gun shot and the movie ends. There is a postscript about what happened to a few of the characters after this moment, but otherwise, that is it.
I took exactly two notes while watching The French Connection. They consist of five words: “Jarring music,” and “Beating the suspect.” The first one took me by surprise as the title flashed on the screen as soon as I hit play. Sometimes I write stuff like that down in case there is a theme that emerges. It fits with my other note. This happens when we first meet Cloudy and Popeye. They go after a suspected drug dealer and as soon as they catch up with the criminal, they start kicking and punching him. Again, I am no officer of the law, but I am pretty sure there are certain rights that must be upheld. What I can say with more certainty is that God is nowhere to be found in this tale, or at least not in an obvious way. The drugs and violence are but one form of Godlessness. It is also seen in the decaying setting that is New York City in the 1970s. Everything is dirty, and this in a United States that had undergone a number of revolutions in the preceding decades. Those were meant to make society better. Yet, with a few exceptions, they led people further away to God. I am not specifically suggesting that God makes cities cleaners, or that it leads to communities free of criminals among their ranks. What I am trying to say is more ephemeral, and I am arguing from what you do not see in the film. What it is missing is any sense of hope. God embodies hope in so many ways. Thus, if people do not have it in their lives, why would they bother to do anything other than what you see in this movie?
All this makes The French Connection, to this Catholic reviewer, a pretty depressing movie. Not even Cloudy and Popeye have a happy ending. As it says in the postscript, they were taken off the narcotics squad following these events. What is more sad, though, is the fact that this is based on a true story.
4 thoughts on “The French Connection, by Albert W. Vogt III”
The sequel isn’t a true story, so Frog 1 meets his end in a far pleasant environment.
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Let us hope it is more pleasant than the movie, anyway!