I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1971 winner, The French Connection, directed by William Friedkin and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider.
The French Connection follows two narcotics officers as they track down leads they hope will bring them a major bust. Aside from some famous chase scenes, the movie is understated for a police film, with events unfolding more like they might in a real investigation.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, The Last Picture Show, and Nicholas and Alexandra. The French Connection also won Oscars for Best Actor (Hackman), Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Robin Moore's book).
As the movie begins, we meet Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) and Detective Buddy Russo (Scheider) in the midst of a bust. They arrest a smalltime criminal, hoping it will lead to something bigger. When that leads nowhere, they follow some suspicious underworld figures out of a bar, until they stumble on enough evidence to seek a warrant and an arrest.
Therein lies the difference between The French Connection and most other police movies. Popeye Doyle and his partner are not searching for answers to a specific crime. Rather, they're just striving to make an impressive-enough bust to look good for both them and the department. Driven by these somewhat selfish motives, Doyle often skirts the rules. His clumsy, brutish style of police work runs contrary to the usual cinematic cop.
Hackman's portrayal won both praise and a Best Acting Oscars. As his long-suffering partner, Scheider is the perfect foil: a by-the-books officer wearied by his partner's convention-flouting ways. Although his character is less memorable, he's important to the story, if for no other reason than to provide some context for Doyle's behavior. Their acting was partially informed by time they'd spent patrolling with police officers Eddie Egan and Sonny Gross, whose exploits inspired the book and movie. This experience opened the actor's eyes to the reality of patrolling the streets.
The use of real police officers and transit workers to play roles in the film also added to the film's authenticity. The performers also frequently used terms and phrases given to them by police advisors during rehearsals.
Much of the movie is shot on location in New York City, and one of the most famous chase scenes of all time (the culmination of which appeared on the movie posters), follows Boyle on a high-octane race against time, in a commandeered car trying to catch up with a suspect on the West End elevated subway line! Incidentally, the realism of that chase was helped by an unplanned car crash, which fortunately resulted in no injuries. The producers paid the car owner for the repairs to his vehicle. The chase sequence was widely regarded as the best up to that time and ranks high even today amongst action aficionados.
Despite a few such moments, the movie is often plodding. Much like real police work, it is full of false leads and waiting. Because of that, however, it may be one of the most accurate police films ever made.
Real police work involves more stakeouts than car chases.