The plot, which is based on a non-fiction book by Robin Moore, revolves around the attempts of two New York detectives, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Scheider), to apprehend a gang of narcotics smugglers.
The factors which in my opinion pervade this whole movie are darkness of tone and a corresponding darkness of scenery and imagery. Most of the scenes are located either at night or in cavernous and forbidding, dimly lit daytime settings. These elements, together with the camerawork and lighting, accentuate the claustrophobia and insidious tension. The fact that the most of the movie appears to have been filmed in cold weather may also have assisted.
Sweeping, panoramic shots are few and far between. The scenes in Washington DC, in bright sunlight, serve as an exception. The accent is firmly on urban decay and the toughness of inner city existence. Even the policemen themselves appeared to pursue a frugal and unostentatious lifestyle.
An intimacy and realism characterizes many of the scenes, including the surveillance and undercover sequences. "Cinema verite" is probably not the correct term, but it nearly borders on "fly on the wall" at times. The editing also contributes to the overall effect.
The rawness and immediacy are also augmented by the sparsity of the dialogue, and the sparing and judicious employment of music, the visuals often sufficing to tell the story. In highlighting the "dark" motif, it should be stressed that both natural and artificial light are utilized beautifully to capture and convey the mood.
The Doyle character, as played by Hackman, is a very plausible and rounded one. The words pugnacious, irascible and even avuncular all spring to mind. Doyle could be seen as a forerunner for other prickly, unorthodox detectives who appeared in films and television later in the 1970s, inducing suspicion and disquiet in his superiors, but surviving by virtue of the results which he delivered.
The popular image of this movie is largely associated with the Doyle character, and this tends to overshadow the role of Russo, so ably portrayed by the excellent Roy Scheider. One of the more intriguing, but less discussed, aspects of the picture is the nebulous relationship between Doyle and Russo. It does not necessarily conform to the audience's expectations of how two "partners" should deal with each other.
One or two things occurred to me during my most recent viewing. One relates to the scene where Doyle uses the pretext of a raid as a "smokescreen" to enable him to speak to an informant. Is this a common device in crime shows and movies? Later in the decade, a similar scene was included in an episode of the British television series "The Professionals". This also begs the question, is the practice a regular one in the real world?
I had also totally forgotten that The Three Degrees make an appearance in a nightclub scene!
Another important, if minor, touch was the decision to include some French dialogue, with subtitles. They add to the authenticity and the realism of the film.
After the absorbing but relatively sedate start to "The French Connection", the pace quickens, around the point where Doyle and Charnier engage in a battle of wits on the New York subway. The climactic phase commences with the attempt on Doyle's life and the iconic and pulsating chase scenes.
I find some of the scenes towards the end unsettling, this sensation compounded by the contrast with the more measured fare which precedes it. Did the owner of the vehicle commandeered by Doyle receive compensation, I wonder?
Some people might regard the enigmatic ending as unsatisfactory, but on reflection I think that it is in keeping with the edgy and uncompromising nature of the film. "The French Connection" is riveting viewing. It might not have been appreciated at the time, but in some ways its appearance heralded a golden period for American cinema, and cinema in general. Its style and tone were at least partially indicative of what was to follow during the remainder of the decade.