The French Connection is a 1971 American dramatic thriller film directed by William Friedkin, produced by Philip D'Antoni with music by Don Ellis. It starred Gene Hackman, Fernando Reyand Roy Scheider. The film was adapted and fictionalized by Ernest Tidyman from the non-fiction book by Robin Moore. It tells the story of New York Police Department detectives named "Popeye" Doyle and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo, whose real-life counterparts were Narcotics Detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. Egan and Grosso also appear in the film, as characters other than themselves.
It was the first R-rated movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture since the introduction of the MPAA film rating system. It also won Academy Awards for Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman). It was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Roy Scheider), Best Cinematographyand Best Sound. Tidyman also received a Golden Globe Award, a Writers Guild of America Award and an Edgar Award for his screenplay.
The film revolves around the smuggling of narcotics between Marseilles, France and New York City. In Marseilles a policeman is staking out Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), a French criminal who is smuggling heroin from France to the United States. The policeman is assassinated by Charnier's henchman, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi).
In New York, detectives James "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) are conducting an undercover stakeout in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. After seeing a drug transaction take place in a bar, Russo goes in to make an arrest and the suspect makes a break for it. After catching up with their suspect and delivering a severe beating after the suspect cuts Russo on the arm with a knife, the detectives aggressively interrogate the man, forcing him to reveal where his connection is based.
After Russo's injury is treated, Doyle convinces him to go out for a drink. At the Copacabana, Doyle becomes interested in Salvatore "Sal" Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his young wife, Angie (Arlene Farber), who are entertaining Mob members involved in narcotics. Doyle persuades his partner to tail the couple; although the Bocas run a modest newsstand luncheonette, they have criminal records: Sal is said to have held up Tiffany and also killed "a guy named DeMarco" while Angie drew a suspended sentence for shoplifting and Sal's brother Lou served jail time for assault and robbery. They make nearly nightly trips to several nightclubs, as well as drive several new cars, which indicate they may be involved in criminal activity. A link is established between the Bocas and lawyer Joel Weinstock (Harold Gray), who is rumored to have connections in the narcotics underworld; Doyle and Russo allude to a drug shipment from Mexicobankrolled by Weinstock.
Doyle and Russo roust a bar in their precinct, where the majority of the black patrons are in possession of marijuana and other minor drugs. The rousting is a stunt for Doyle to connect with an informant, whom he questions about an apparent shortage of hard drugs on the street; Doyle is told that a major shipment of heroin is on its way. The detectives convince their supervisor, Walt Simonson (Eddie Egan), to wiretap the Bocas' phones and use several ruses to try to obtain more information.
The film centers on three main points: the criminals' efforts to smuggle drugs into the United States, which is made easier when Charnier dupes his friend, a French actor named Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), into importing an automobile (unbeknownst to Devereaux, the drugs are concealed within the vehicle) and the sale of the drugs to Weinstock and Sal Boca; the efforts of Doyle and Russo to shadow Boca and Charnier; and the conflicts the detectives have with Simonson and a federal agent named Mulderig (Bill Hickman), assigned to the case due to the wiretap. Doyle and Mulderig dislike each other; Russo and Doyle feel they can handle the bust without the government's help, and Mulderig criticizes Doyle on items ranging from trivialities like Doyle's appearance to an incident where a policeman was killed and Mulderig holds Doyle responsible. Doyle comes to blows with Mulderig.
Weinstock's chemist (Pat McDermott) tests a sample of the heroin and declares it the purest he has ever seen, establishing that the shipment could make as much as $32 million on a half-million dollar investment. Boca is impatient to make the purchase (reflecting Charnier's desire to return to France as soon as possible), while Weinstock, with more experience in smuggling, urges patience, knowing Boca's phone is tapped and that they are being investigated.
Charnier soon "makes" Doyle and realizes he has been observed since his arrival in New York. Nicoli offers to kill Doyle; Charnier objects, knowing killing one policeman will not amount to anything, but Nicoli says they will be in France before they can be detained. Nicoli attempts to assassinate Doyle, but botches the job, leading to a car chase scene that culminates with Nicoli's hijacking an elevated train.
Nicoli, after killing a policeman who was pursuing him, holds the driver at gunpoint. Near the end of the line Nicoli is confronted by passengers and the motorman passes out. The train reaches the end of the line and is halted by a safety mechanism on the tracks. Nicoli escapes the train and Doyle shoots him when he attempts to escape. The car containing the drugs is impounded when some thieves try to strip it of its valuables. Doyle and Russo take the car apart searching for drugs. When Russo notes the vehicle is 120 pounds over its listed weight, they realize the drugs must still be in the car. The mechanic tells them he did not remove the car's rocker panels; when he does, the drugs are discovered. The police later return the car to Devereaux, seemingly untouched.
It seems as though the drug deal has been a major success; Weinstock's chemist tests one of the bags and confirms its quality. Using a car that Sal Boca's brother Lou (Benny Marino) picked out, the criminals conceal the money. The car is to be imported into France, where Charnier will retrieve the money. Charnier and Sal Boca drive off, but run into a roadblock consisting of a large force of police led by Doyle. The police chase Charnier and Sal Boca to an old factory. Sal is killed during a shootout with the police and almost all of the others surrender.
Charnier escapes into the warehouse and Doyle hunts for him. Russo joins in the search. Doyle, trigger-happy and high on adrenaline, sees a shadowy figure in the distance and empties his revolver at it a split-second after shouting a warning. The man Doyle kills is not Charnier, but Mulderig. Doyle seems unfazed and vows to capture Charnier, reloading his gun and running into another room. The last sound heard in the film is a single gunshot. (In the TV version that ran in the late 1970s, Doyle says of getting Charnier, I'm going to get that son of a bitch if it takes me the rest of my life!!)
Title cards before the closing credits note that Joel Weinstock and Angie Boca got away without prison time while Lou Boca got a reduced sentence and Devereaux served four years. Charnier was never caught. Both Doyle and Russo were transferred out of the narcotics division and reassigned.
The plot centers around drug smuggling in the 1960s and early '70s, when most of the heroin illegally imported into the East Coast came to the United States through France. In addition to the two main protagonists, several of the fictional characters depicted in the film also have real-life counterparts. The Alain Charnier character is based upon Jean Jehan who was arrested later in Paris for drug trafficking, though he was not extradited; the director credits a general lack of punishment to Jehan's military service with Charles de Gaulle. Sal Boca is based on Pasquale "Patsy" Fuca, and his brother Anthony. Angie Boca is based on Patsy's wife Barbara, who later wrote a book with Robin Moore detailing her life with Patsy. The Fucas and their uncle were part of a heroin dealing crew that worked with some of the New York crime families. Henri Devereaux, who takes the fall for importing the Lincoln to New York, is based on Jacques Angelvin, a television actor arrested and sentenced to three to six years in a federal penetentiary for his role, serving about four before repatriating to France and turning to real estate. The Joel Weinstock character is, according to the director's commentary, a composite of several similar drug dealers.