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Friday at the Movies: The French Connection

By: Bridget Clerkin March 30, 2018
DMV.ORG's Friday at the Movies is a semi-regular breakdown of our favorite movie car chases of all time. This week: The French Connection.

When The French Connection was released in 1971, the movie cleaned up at awards season, snagging eight Oscar nods and five wins, including honors for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.

Yet sadly, the film somehow failed to take home the biggest—and most important—accolade that year: Best Epic Race Between a Sweet Mid-Size Sedan & an Elevated Train. (The Academy has since discontinued the prize, as it took too long to engrave the gold statuettes with that title.)

Thankfully, we at DMV.ORG are here to correct this fatal error of history, offering The French Connection the true recognition it deserves by obsessing over every detail that went into creating the spot-on vehicular performance—a scene that today is nearly synonymous with the words “car chase.”

In a movie based on the harrowing real-life tale of two New York City police officers vying to stop a deadly French heroin syndicate from smuggling $32 million worth of the stuff into the states, the scene somehow stands out as the film’s most thrilling five minutes. And, according to those who were on set at the time, creating the cinematic masterpiece was just as dangerous a task.

The Scene

The movie follows New York City detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo—played by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, respectively—and their pursuit of French drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).

The scene centers around what happens when the crime-fighting duo gets too close to nailing their target.

After Charnier realizes he’s been spotted in the city by two cops who are wise to the impending deal, he allows himself to be convinced by his head henchman and hitman, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), to kill the officers. Nicoli scopes out a spot on Popeye’s roof to wait for the detective to return home, but the sniper shot intended to kill the officer misses, and Doyle immediately gives chase when the baddie flees, thus giving birth to what has been referred to as “one of the best chase scenes of all time.”

This being New York, Nicoli decides to take the A Train (actually the D—which, at that time, was the B), leaping onto the elevated transport to evade the pursuing detective, but not before Doyle can commandeer his own car to chase the hitman from below the train’s tracks.

All told, the five-minute-long sequence is a symphony of squealing tires, adrenaline-fueled speeds, and nail-biting near-misses.

But the desperate honks of fellow motorists and cusses hurled at the rampaging automobile from startled pedestrians were anything but scripted. Director William Friedkin has said that the only aspect of the scene he was permitted to shoot was what took place on the train itself—all of the action below the tracks was the improvisational work of a stunt driver speeding through 26 city blocks at upwards of 90 MPH, all while dodging the real-life denizens of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

The Cars

Filmed in 1970, the movie was set in then-modern-day New York, and the vehicles used by its characters were very much of the period—including the brown 1971 Pontiac LeMans commandeered by Gene Hackman’s character for the chase.

The production actually used two versions of the car—one fully intact, and one with the backseat removed to film parts of the scene from the auto’s interior.

The complete vehicle was referred to as the “hero car,” and the auto earned the nickname, tallying quite the total of body damage as it weaved in and out of real-life traffic.

Aside from sustaining a number of minor dings—and a ton of burnt rubber—the car only narrowly avoided getting smushed between a delivery truck and the pillars of the El when the driver tried to outmaneuver the larger vehicle, instead taking a nasty hit to the front passenger side that sent the car careening off the street.

But the worst damage the vehicle sustained was the least expected: as Popeye is shown screaming down Stillwell Avenue, a white Ford attempting to cross perpendicularly suddenly rams into the passenger side of the LeMans, busting up the car from fender to fender and sending plumes of white smoke billowing from within the body.

The unintentional co-star was actually a regular Brooklyn man on his way to work. Like most of the other “extras,” he didn’t know he had actually stumbled across an active film set, and had even less of an idea that he had just become part of one of the most iconic car chase scenes of all time. (For his troubles, the production paid for the damages to his vehicle.)

Admiring the realism the real-life crash added to the piece, Friedkin kept the shot—but the director himself was an integral part in creating the conditions for some of the scene’s most death-defying acts.

The Drivers

Friedman took a backseat to the action—literally—as the only crew member willing to film from inside the car itself. (Reportedly, he volunteered for the dangerous gig as he was the only camera operator not married with children.)

Still, he utilized his time in the precarious spot to make the ride even riskier, supposedly taunting stunt driver Bill Hicks about his lack of manliness and motoring skills to antagonize a more aggressive performance.

Not that Hicks needed help.

The stuntman was already a Hollywood legend in the making at the time, having recently wrapped on the classic thriller Bullitt, at that point considered the cinematic pinnacle of car chase scenes. (In the flick, Hicks was responsible for piloting a black 1968 Dodge Charger 440 Magnum R/T through the hilly streets of San Francisco, in an effort to outmaneuver Steve McQueen’s green Ford Mustang 390 GT.)

Despite making all the carnage avoidance look easy, there was one stunt specifically planned for Hicks by the crew: the car’s near-miss of a woman walking a baby stroller across the street.

Still, he wasn’t the only professional on set. Shot on a shoestring budget, the production team was able to convince some off-duty NYPD officers—many of whom had worked on the real-life French Connection case—to help control traffic for several blocks around the set during filming, allowing their movie magic counterparts to chase down the bad guy in front of the cameras.

The Score

There’s little wrong with this beauty of a chase scene, incorporating legendary drivers, ‘70s-era Brooklyn at its finest, and real-life carnage to boot.

We give the scene an 8 out of 10, since Hicks failed to hit triple-digits while speeding underneath the El. (We have high standards.) Still, we’d be willing to give William Friedkin the coveted Best Epic Race Between a Sweet Mid-Size Sedan & an Elevated Train award. Hope there’s enough space on his shelf.

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