The Library of Congress wasn’t wrong to include The French Connection into its registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” in 2005. It is truly one of the best cop-movie pictures of all time! Back in 1972 on April 10th, at the 44th annual Academy Awards, it deservedly won best picture (of 1971). From a technical point of view, one can’t help but admire the rough-edged editing style of the film that makes many memorable scenes seem reckless and frantic. It is also quite scary how true to life it portrayed urban decay of the 70’s, and even more impressive is its unyieldingly gloomy ending. Loosely based on a true story, the film centres on the single-minded zeal of New York City police detective “Popeye” Doyle, played by legendary actor Gene Hackman. All in all, it is a thrilling and powerful movie set against the backdrop on the war on drugs.
In talking about one of the films most memorable scenes, I’m always reminded of the car chase scene with “Popeye” Doyle, hurtling beneath the elevated train system in pursuit of a snipper who had hijacked a train in an attempt to escape Doyle. Incidentally this famous scene was semi-written into the script because director William Friedkin feared a straight-out police surveillance drama would be boring likening it to watching paint dry. While it seems like a tongue in cheek comment, the surveillance or procedural aspects of the film are far from boring. In fact scenes like the subway getaway, where Doyle is tailing “Frog One” is brilliant, not only highlighting Doyle’s obsession with his ongoing case, but also his frustration of catching the bad guy.
So anyway with Friedkin determined to have a chase scene in the film, he went about figuring out how he was going to do it. Prior to the beginning of filming Friedkin and his producer decided to take a stroll along 86th Street from the east side of New York and ended up walking some fifty blocks taking in all that the city had to offer from the rumbling of the subway below their feet to the crowds of New Yorkers on their daily grind. It was while on this long trudge that Fiendkin started to improvise the chase that would eventually take place in the film. With the help of a locations expert he later cherry picked where he wanted his key chase scenes to be, many of them right under the L Track.
Unlike the hijacked train sequence which had the full co-operation of the transit authorities, the car chase scene sequence beneath the train was in essence a rogue moment of film-making, shot without any legal authority or permits, which was later edited with additional scenes of Gene Hackman in the driver’s seat.
In truth, stunt driver Bill Hickman was in charge of the seemingly out of control chase. At first, the footage that Friedkin later saw in the film rushes was not what he had hoped for. So over a drink or two with Hickman, he opened up about how terrible the scenes came out. The next day Hickman suggested that they film the scene again, but this time with Friedkin in the back seat operating a camera over the shoulder of Hickman, and with another camera mounted on the front bumper of the car, to help capture and heighten the danger and thrill of the mad dash beneath New York’s elevated tracks.
As Hollywood legend dictates Hickman drove the car at 90 miles an hour for 26 blocks to capture what we pretty much see on film. The first five blocks were apparently supervised but the remainder of the unsupervised thrill ride was filmed with a real risk that something might go wrong. With the exception of the moment where a woman with her stroller is almost hit and a few other planned collision, everything we apparently see beneath the elevated train line was done spontaneously, including a real life collision that occurred by chance with an unsuspected New York resident driving to work.
The climax of the chase scene ends with Gene Hackman’s character Popeye Doyle skidding to a halt when he realises the train he was chasing had suddenly crashed into stationary train on the elevated train line. It is here that Doyle catches up with the criminal would-be snipper who tried to put a bullet into him in the scenes just before Doyle commandeered a car and gave chase.
Check out the movie clip here below just moments into the chase. Enjoy!