We enter the 1970s now with a retrospective look back at the career of, in my opinion, one of American cinema’s greatest actors. I’m talking of course about the brilliant Gene Hackman who starred in two Best Picture nominees during the 1970s.
Though Hackman had been around for a while he only really came to prominence in his late thirties after his appearance in Bonnie and Clyde, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. Four years later he was propelled to stardom thanks to his central role as Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle in The French Connection. The French Connection picked up Best Picture at the 1972 ceremony and also gave its lead actor his first Academy Award. The film, which was the first R-Rated movie to win the Best Picture Award, takes place in the streets of New York and follows Doyle and his partner Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo as they attempt a drug bust. I found the story of the film fairly unique in that we followed the French drug smugglers at the same time as the New York cops. The film’s main antagonist is Alain Charnier, who plans to smuggle millions of dollars’ worth of heroin into the country by using the car of a TV personality. As we learn throughout the film, Doyle and Russo aren’t exactly the most trustworthy of individuals but they are incredibly good at their jobs so most of their colleagues are forced to trust them. As Doyle and Russo identify Charnier and his men, the chase is on to track down the drugs and arrest those involved in the plot. But not everything goes to plan and when Doyle’s plot backfires, he and Russo are taken off the case. However, that doesn’t dissuade Doyle and he’s soon in hot pursuit of the man whose been sent to assassinate him, hoping that this will result in him finding the drugs.
After watching The French Connection, I feel like I’ve entered the 1970s with a bang. The film is fast-paced without losing sight of its plot and incredibly stylised throughout. Director William Friedkin looked to French cinema to create a lot of the style in the French Connection and that is definitely evident. At the same time, The French Connection has a profound sense of location and I was completely transported into New York right from the earliest scenes. For me the style extends to the characters’ costumes most notably the hat and coat worn by Doyle. The most iconic scene in the whole film is the legendary car chase in which Doyle, in a car, is racing a commuter train which is above him. Owen Roizman’s cinematography takes you right into Doyle’s car while Friedkin makes sure that we don’t miss a thing. I was completely sucked in by this chase and think it’s one that’s been imitate many times but has never been bettered. Hackman is absolutely tremendous in the lead role as Doyle combining the stereotypical ‘bad cop’ with someone who has a genuine passion for the job. Hackman understands every intricate detail of his character down to the little wave that Doyle gives to Charnier in one of the final scenes. Meanwhile, Hackman is well-supported by the reliable Roy Scheider as the more level-headed Russo. While earlier crime always saw the criminals brought to justice, we learn at the end of The French Connection that a lot of the crooks in the film either served small sentences or never went to jail again. Overall, The French Connection is definitely one of the best Best Picture winners I’ve seen so far.