Watching The French Connection (1971) fills another hole in my historical knowledge of cinema, and while I can see why it appealed to the Oscar voters of its era, it seems overrated after the fact. Based on an actual case, the film stars Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a loose-cannon narcotics detective in New York City whose free-wheeling lifestyle mixes with obsessive anti-crime workaholism. When he and his partner “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Schneider) go out for drinks after work, Doyle notices a mobbed-up table at the night club they’re in. He coerces Cloudy to join him in the spontaneous surveillance of an unknown figure at the table who turns out to be Salvatore Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), the working-class owner of a Brooklyn deli. So why is he rubbing elbows with mafia hoods, and waving around wads of cash? Popeye and Cloudy convince their superiors to investigate, putting them onto a potential, massive drug deal connecting the New York mafia with a Marseilles-based heroin trafficker named Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Persistent legwork soon escalates into a violent game of cat and mouse as Popeye relentlessly, and recklessly, pursues the case.
The French Connection does possess a certain compelling energy, especially in the way it deploys classic visual story-telling techniques that depict, rather than over-explicate, the gradual unfolding of the case. There’s also a realistic grittiness to the urban setting, and a timely cynicism to the way it resolves in its dark final moments. But Hackman’s racist, against-the-grain antihero is difficult to care about, diminishing any emotional investment in his dogged efforts, which are otherwise carried out by relatively uninteresting pawns in a crime-world chess match. The film’s grubby, ugly cinematography is immersive, but doesn’t strike me as artful, and the film’s dark point of view is well intentioned but not particularly insightful. As well-regarded relics go, it’s easy to see why this one garnered attention, considering Hackman’s flashy performance, the authentic vibe, and occasionally stirring action. But in the end doesn’t add up to very much.