Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Kate Erbland recklessly chases a train through Brooklyn for William Friedkin’s The French Connection commentary track.
William Friedkin hasn’t always made odd films about strange characters who end up doing horrible things. He used to direct movies about little girls getting taken over by the Devil and edgy cops who crack down on drug rings. That latter part, The French Connection, is what we’re looking at this week, as it’s time to go back and listen to what the Killer Joe director had to say over one of his greatest films, a true classic with one of the greatest actors ever giving what is arguably — not very arguably, though — his finest performance.
But we’re more interested in what the director of that film has to say about that actor, that greatest performance, and that damn car chase. Friedkin is known for giving great commentary, able to hold his own on a track with ample amounts of information, personal insight, and views on the art of filmmaking and the business of movies as a whole.
Needless to say, we’re expecting a lot here, and Friedkin rarely ever disappoints. So strap in and check out all the wonderful things we learned listening to this commentary for The French Connection.
The French Connection (1971)
Commentators: William Friedkin (director)
- The French Connection is based on a real case that took place in New York in the 1970s. Friedkin calls the film an “impression of that case,” but the main characters of Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo are based on real-life detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. The tactics Doyle and Russo use in the film are very much like tactics used by Egan and Grosso, who would go into bars and cause panic until their suspect revealed himself. “This was the kind of thing that occurred daily in their lives as narcotics detectives,” says Friedkin.
- The director also notes that Egan and Grosso were on set every day shooting took place to ensure it came off as genuine. Egan also appears in the film as Doyle and Russo’s Lieutenant. Grosso appears as Klein, one of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics agents assigned to the case.
- Friedkin points out that the prologue in The French Connection sets very nearly the same tone as the prologue in another of his films, The Exorcist, which is about Satan, not French drug dealers. We can understand the similarities, though.
- The director was heavily influenced by two films, both French, while making his movie: Godard’s Breathless and Costa Govras’ Z. Friedkin notes the unique way they handled the editing in The French Connection and how everything is shot on real locales, not sets, giving the film a documentary feel. The director had a history with making documentaries, and this was his first chance at using some of those techniques in a narrative film.
- As part of the documentary feel of the film, Friedkin would not go through what action was about to take place with the camera operator, Enrique Bravo. The operator would have to keep up and capture whatever he could on film to the best of his abilities. “I let the camera crew go and find the action, as if it’s real,” he notes.
- Friedkin points out that Egan and Grosso would interrogate suspects much in the way Doyle and Russo do in the film. Grosso would ask them specific questions, while Egan would ask complete non-sequiter questions, trying to trip the suspect up into confessing. “He was more afraid of answering Doyle’s nonsensical questions than Russo’s questions that made sense,” Friedkin points out. Also, have you ever picked your feet in Poughkeepsie?
- Fernando Rey wasn’t the first choice to play the film’s villain Alain Charnier. Friedkin wanted Francisco Rabal, an actor he had seen work with Luis Bunuel on a number of different occasions. Not knowing the actor’s name, Friedkin asked the studio to get the actor that works with Bunuel, and they came back with Rey. Freidkin knew as soon as he saw Rey this wasn’t the person he had wanted. Rabal wasn’t available, anyway.
- Egan’s actual nickname was Popeye, as he always had his eyes open. Because of his morose nature, Grosso was nicknamed Cloudy, and “Popeye and Cloudy” became a wonderful, Saturday morning cartoon show in the late ’80s. No, not really. But it should have.
- As Friedkin points out, the straw hat in the back windshield is an indication throughout New York City that it’s an undercover cop on duty. It’s probably changed over the years.
- Friedkin doesn’t use storyboards in his films, at least not with The French Connection. He waits to get on the location and works with his director of photography to come up with the best way to shoot the scene. “We work it out usually on a location scout well in advance, and then we go out and shoot it that way,” he explains.
- Gene Hackman had a hard time getting into his role as a tough-minded racist. “That’s really what it appears Eddie Egan was,” says Friedkin, “although the fact is that he was a great cop, and a lot of this was an act. A lot of what Egan did was bravado in order to seize control and make sure that all of these suspects, most of them dealers and often users of heavy drugs, would do what he told them to do.”
- “Really, in many ways, I felt this was a crude poem to the city,” says Friedkin explaining how he wanted to show many angles of New York City that had never been filmed before, the good and the bad of it. There’s no shot of the dumpsters in Time Square after New Years, so the really bad doesn’t make an appearance.
- “The mornings would usually start in this way, with Eddie hung over and having had casual sex the night before, and Grosso already shaved and ready to go, and that’s why they were an interesting and marvelous combination,” says the director talking about the things he saw first-hand from being around the film’s real-life subject matters.
- The production on The French Connection was very much guerrilla filmmaking, and Friedkin points out the traffic jam scene on the Brooklyn Bridge had to be achieved by actually setting up a traffic jam on the Brooklyn Bridge without permits. “We just got a bunch of our friends and off-duty police officers to park there and blocked the Brooklyn Bridge,” he explains. Now, even the bridge would be digitally created. Old-school filmmakers were so hardcore.
- None of the people in the background are extras. They were actual New York residents going about their day while Friedkin and crew made a film around them. Not many of them even realized what they were doing.
- To get the scene with Popeye in the freezing weather outside observing Charnier having a comfortable lunch inside, it was so cold that Friedkin had to take the crew inside between every shot. He also notes that this scene was very realistic to what Egan and Grosso had to contend with to keep hold of a tail.
- Most of the shots in The French Connection were done after one or two takes, and rarely did a shot require more than three. There was no dolly track during the production, and tracking shots had to be achieved by putting the camera operator in a wheelchair. This created what Freidkin calls an “induced documentary feel” to many of these shots.
- The production encountered a number of issues that caused the budget to swell $300,000 past its $1.5m proposed budget. “Today, you couldn’t make this film for less than 20 times what it cost,” says Friedkin. The CGI Brooklyn Bridge for the traffic jam scene would cost $1.5m on its own.
- The test on the heroine scene is incredibly accurate to how authorities test to see how pure of a cut the drug is. In fact, the shot of the technician scooping up heroine on a needle is a shot of actual heroine. The scene where the test is delivered later in the film also utilized actual heroine. That’d probably be CG nowadays, too.
- The scene where Doyle is frantically tracking Charnier in downtown New York City was one of the scenes that drew Friedkin to want to make the film. He loved the idea of a cat-and-mouse game without words, right in the middle of broad daylight, and around people who were oblivious that it was taking place.
- The scene in the New York City subway was also done without permits. Friedkin explains that having Egan and Grosso on set was a huge help to their guerrilla style of filmmaking. The retired officers would make sure no one hassled the production.
- “I was very conscious of the fact that there was a great cop movie made a couple of years before called Bullitt,” says Friedkin to kick off the commentary during The French Connection’s famed chase sequence. The director didn’t want to copy the scene from the earlier film, which features a two-car chase. The idea to have a car chasing a train came about from Friedkin and producer Phil D’Antoni walking around New York City and trying to come up with an inventive chase sequence. Also no amount of “set management” from Egan and Grosso would let them take a car down into the subway tunnels.
- “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,” says the director.
- The chase sequence was designed entirely by Friedkin, but most of the other cars on the street and the people walking down the sidewalks were real people. There were a few near-misses planned, and stunt cars were used. However, every attempt to film a near-miss resulted in a collision, and constant repairs had to be done to maintain the look of the car Hackman was driving. Some of these accidental collisions are still used in the film.
- Hackman did the actual driving during the chase sequence. The car was neither pulled by a rope or chain or attached to any safety equipment. Just Gene Hackman tearing ass through New York City in a car that eventually looked like a beat-up tin can. In other words, the greatest set in the history of ever.
- Friedkin notes that the car they were using could top out at 80 or 90, and the highest speed an elevated train could go was about 50. He points out that it is perfectly feasible for the car to keep up with the train if it’s going at maximum speed. This is when logic takes over safety, but who cares?
- “I had no reservations about doing it then, because I was a callow, heedless youth,” notes Friedkin regarding the reckless way he shot the chase scene. “But I wouldn’t do anything like this now.” If you’ve seen Killer Joe or Bug you realize he’s moved from physical recklessness to psychological recklessness. Poor Ashley Judd.
- “They wouldn’t allow us to actually crash two elevated trains,” begins Friedkin who goes on to explain how they pulled off the shot using camera movement and trick photography.
- A lot of police officers on set objected to Doyle shooting the suspect he’s chasing in the back. Friedkin defends it by saying it’s exactly what he imagines Eddie Egan would have done in a similar situation.
- The way the drugs came into the country and the way the money was to be smuggled out was actually how they did it in the real case on which this is based. Friedkin points out they had been smuggling drugs and money in and out of the country for years before Egan and Grosso stumbled across it.
- Everyone playing the gangsters and dealers in the film’s climactic shoot-out were actual, off-duty police officers who had worked the original case. Basically on this set, if you weren’t Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, or someone who worked with Luis Bunuel, chances are you were an off-duty cop.
- The real-life drug smuggler the Charnier character was based on actually got out of the country as the character does in the film. Friedkin notes the man died peacefully in France years later. Likewise, the character of Sal Boca is killed, but his real-life counterpart was captured and spent very little time in prison. “What I’m suggesting, of course, in saying this and I’m only suggesting that Charnier, who got out of the country, Sal and the others, who did very little time, I’m suggesting there were payoffs involved at the highest levels of law enforcement,” he suggests. “There was no way that Charnier could have escaped this cordon that was around him and that there was no way Sal Boca was not gonna do major jail time for what he did.”
- It was decided that Doyle would accidentally kill the FBN agent, Mulderig, when Egan noted to Friedkin that he would really like to kill the character Friedkin had written. This part of the story was not based on any real events.
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“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 I met them and actually went out with them on some of the narcotics busts they had pulled off, I could see that they were not only the two most effective cops in New York, but that they were having a lot of fun doing this.” -Friedkin about Egan and Grosso.
“What I wanted to do was a modern version of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.”
A lot of times, a director or actor going through step-by-step analysis of what’s going on in the film is a hindrance to enjoying a commentary. However, in certain cases like the one we have here, listening to a gifted and veteran director talk about his film in any capacity is a gift. Friedkin is fine with doing play-by-play for much of The French Connection commentary, because there’s so much else he has to offer. Particularly in the chase sequence, the director is very quick to point out anecdotes or explain out they did it. In this case, how they did it is quite remarkable.
But Friedkin talks so fast, relays so much information, and does such a fine job comparing the film’s characters to their real-life counterparts that listening to him explain the play-by-play is almost like hearing him tell us how the events actually played out. It’s a fascinating listen with one of the industry’s most talented directors, and you get the impression he’s very proud, and deservedly so, of this early work. You also get the impression he really wanted to crash those elevated trains.