Gene Hackman has been happily retired from the film business for nearly two decades, but he couldn't pass up the opportunity to mark the 50th anniversary of The French Connection. The legendary actor — who has become a full-time novelist since stepping away from Hollywood following 2004's Welcome to Mooseport — gave his first public interview in years to the New York Post in a piece about William Friedkin's classic police thriller, which opened in theaters on Oct. 9, 1971.
"Filmmaking has always been risky — both physically and emotionally — but I do choose to consider that film a moment in a checkered career of hits and misses," Hackman told Post reporter Hannah Frishberg in a short e-mail interview. He later added: "The film certainly helped me in my career, and I am grateful for that."
At the same time, Hackman admits that he hasn't revisited his Oscar-winning star turn as fleet-footed New York detective, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle since filming the movie five decades ago. "[I] haven’t seen the film since the first screening in a dark, tiny viewing room in a post-production company’s facility 50 years ago," he said.
Certainly, it's impossible to talk about The French Connection without bringing up its best-remembered sequence: a pulse-pounding car chase through the mean streets of Brooklyn as Doyle pursues an assassin (Marcel Bozzuffi) with ties to a major heroin-smuggling syndicate. Friedkin famously shot that scene under harrowing circumstances, with little to no traffic control or choreographed stunt work. "The only thing we had permits for was to shoot on the elevated train," Friedkin revealed during a 45th anniversary screening of the film in 2016. "I wouldn't do anything like this today," he added, saying that they were "very lucky" nobody was seriously injured.
At the same time, that behind-the-scenes danger is palpably felt onscreen, and the main reason why the sequence is consistently ranked as one of the greatest car chases every committed to film. Although Hackman feels there's another film that tops his own. "As for the car chase, there was a better one filmed a few years earlier with Steve McQueen," the actor tells the Post, referring to the Peter Yates's 1968 film Bullitt, which features McQueen speeding through the streets of San Francisco.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2018, Friedkin said that he originally cast famous New York journalist Jimmy Breslin as Popeye Doyle opposite Roy Scheider as Doyle's partner, Buddy Russo. "He had the look, but he didn’t have the acting skills," the director recalled. "He didn’t want to be cast in it, but I said, 'Jimmy, you’re this guy. Let’s just try it.' We tried it for a week, and it didn’t work." At that point, he enlisted Hackman for what became the actor's star-making role after memorable supporting performances in films like Bonnie and Clyde and Downhill Racer.
As written by screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (who adapted Robin Moore's 1969 non-fiction book) and directed by Friedkin, Popeye Doyle isn't just a dangerous driver: he's also blunt-spoken and openly racist. According to Friedkin, Hackman balked at delving too deeply into that side of the character. "He didn’t want to go that far into what he thought was racist behavior," the director said. "I didn’t agree that it was racist behavior. It was this guy trying to survive in places like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time and not take a bullet. So he didn’t want to really go that far, but we did, as far as we could."
In his New York Post interview, Hackman still strikes a conflicted note about Doyle's racist streak, not to mention his overall legacy as a cinematic cop. "If the film has a legacy, I am not sure what that would be," he remarks. "At the time, it seemed to me to be a reverent story of a cop who was simply able to solve and put a stop to a major crime family’s attempt to infiltrate the New York drug scene."
For his part, Friedkin would likely push back against Hackman's suggestion that The French Connection was too reverent in its depiction of Doyle. "That’s who he was," Friedkin argued in our 2018 interview while discussing how the conversation surrounding depictions of police officers in film and television has drastically changed since 1971.
"I went around for three months with [Eddie] Egan and [Sonny] Grasso, the two [real-life] French Connection cops, and the film is mostly made up of stuff that I saw them do, as well as what they told me happened in the real case. I was fascinated by their dynamic in the street, more so than the drug case. It was about them. I didn’t try to present them negatively or positively. This is who I saw; this is what they did; and the audience makes its own judgment."
"I remember when I took the film to Italy... I did a press conference, and it was the first time I had ever seen the press split between left and right," Friedkin continued. "I had never seen that in America. Some guys on the left would say, 'These cops are fascists — they should all be in jail themselves.' And others [on the right] would say, 'We need to fill the streets with them and clean up all these criminals that are everywhere.' It’s hard to do a film about a hero cop today. It would be very difficult."
The French Connection is currently streaming on Showtime