At the movies: The making of The French Connection chase

1971 Pontiac LeMans in The French Connection

William Friedkin called The French Connection “a crude poem to the city,” and you can feel this unpolished poetry rendered in every frame. It’s baked into the grit and grime of New York in the 1970s, its glittering storefronts and neon lights, bustling bars and nightclubs, and roaring traffic, streets slick with rain. Against this backdrop, Friedkin sets his story about two policemen hunting an elusive criminal.

The film was based on a real NYPD case involving a French drug smuggler who had stashed $32 million worth of heroin in the panel of an old Buick. William Friedkin was enthusiastic about the story and on board to direct, but he never did finish reading Robin Moore’s book about the case. The true story involved more than 60 law enforcement officers, but Friedkin’s The French Connection pares it down to two detectives: Eddie “Popeye” Egan and Sonny “Cloudy” Grosso, who assisted production of the film, acted in it, and even inspired its scenes and its ad-libbed dialogue.

William Friedkin envisioned the relationship between Gene Hackman’s Popeye and Fernando Rey’s Alain Charnier as a modern-day version of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, a cat-and-mouse dynamic that became a blueprint for crime movies to follow (see: Michael Mann’s filmography). Friedkin imbues The French Connection with realism that extends to its tense, iconic chase that reflects the obsessive drive of Popeye Doyle. Popeye Doyle is complicated, an antihero or maybe worse. He’s racist, violent, and self-righteous. He shoots a sniper in the back and he accidentally, but remorselessly, kills a Fed.

20th Century Fox's The French Connection
popeye driving The french connection

The film opens with Hackman and his partner Cloudy (Roy Scheider) interrogating, chasing, and beating up a suspect. Our introduction to Fernando Rey’s Alain Charnier involves a loving exchange of gifts with his wife. Friedkin notes on the film’s commentary: “That’s really the theme of the film, the thin line between policeman and criminal. The cop who has the badge is basically an obsessive, brutalizing racist, and the narcotics smuggler is a gourmet; he dresses well, he loves his wife, he’s in every way imaginable a charming human being.”

When New York Times crime reporter Ernest Tidyman first adapted The French Connection, no one would touch the script. So Friedkin, producer Phil D’Antoni, and Tidyman decided to put a car chase in it. The scene doesn’t feel like an afterthought, though, it’s the perfect synthesis of car chase, character, and story. And it isn’t your standard chase, either—Popeye pursues a train. D’Antoni had also produced Bullitt and did not want borrow from its chase, so D’Antoni and Friedkin agreed to do something inventive. They wanted a chase with a twist. As the two explored New York, the concept of a car chasing an elevated train was born.

The chase begins when Popeye Doyle commandeers a 1971 Pontiac LeMans. Production had two Pontiacs for the chase: a hero car, and another with its back seat removed so they could slip in camera mounts. William Friedkin had been riling up stunt driver Bill Hickman (who had driven Bullitt’s Dodge Charger) for weeks. Friedkin told Hickman he had no guts. He questioned his driving ability and masculinity. Hickman told Friedkin, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll show you some driving if you get in the car with me.” During their run, Friedkin operated a camera over Bill’s shoulder, with another camera on the bumper. Hickman drove between up to 90 mph for 26 blocks, blowing through stop signs and traffic lights, with only a siren on top of the car to warn other drivers and pedestrians. Miraculously, no one was hurt, and most shots of the chase come from that one take.

The French Connection chase
1971 Pontiac LeMans

To say that the filming of the chase scene was reckless is a terrific understatement. Whereas the productions of Bullitt and The Italian Job had carefully blocked off streets with the help of the police—and Bullitt had exclusively employed stuntmen as drivers and pedestrians—these were busy city streets with no traffic control, and anyone on the road was at risk. Friedkin designed the chase and staged the action with the actors, but didn’t share that information with his cameramen, in the hope that they’d capture an “induced documentary feel.” They used few stunt cars and extras. After speaking with the Transit Authority—and giving a New York official $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica—they obtained a permit to shoot on the elevated train. Otherwise, there were no proper permits, so assistant directors, off-duty officers, and Egan and Grosso made sure no one gave the production trouble.

It took five weeks to shoot a 15-minute sequence, and there were only five staged stunts. Thankfully, they’d rehearsed the near-miss of a woman with a baby carriage. Other staged moments include Popeye narrowly missing a car in an intersection, Popeye driving the wrong way on a one-way street, Popeye causing a collision after narrowly missing a truck, and nearly hitting a fence. Unsurprisingly, there were some unplanned accidents. What was intended to be a near-miss at the intersection of Stillwell Avenue and 86th Street became an actual collision between Hackman and a stunt driver, their cars bouncing off each other like accordions. Friedkin kept the crash in the film to enhance the chase’s realism.

The first cut of the chase looked awful, and Friedkin credits at least 50 percent of the scene’s success to great editing and sound, which was done after the fact on a Fox backlot. The other 50 percent of the chase’s greatness is a result of Friedkin’s and D’Antoni’s inventiveness, the impeccable stunt driving of an enraged Bill Hickman, Owen Roizman’s and Friedkin’s cinematography (Friedkin says he operated the camera for key shots because he was young and single, and his cameramen had families), and of course, Gene Hackman acting his ass off in the driver’s seat. Friedkin explains: “The other thing to remember about this chase is the old admonition by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great American writer, that action is character. What a person does and how they do it is what and who they are, and this chase embodies the character of Popeye Doyle.”

William Friedkin’s style, mastery, and documentary background help create a palpable sense of danger and authenticity throughout The French Connection, especially during its iconic chase. Friedkin recognizes in retrospect that the way he filmed the chase was life-threatening and “a terrible thing to do,” and he explains that he “had no reservations about doing it then, because I was a callow, heedless youth. But I wouldn’t do anything like this now.” When asked once by filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie whether he’d do anything differently, however, William Friedkin responded, “Nothing. I wouldn’t change a frame.”