What I wanted to do was a modern version of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.
The words of William Friedkin speaking about his film The French Connection which won five Academy Awards in 1972, including Best Picture, and Best Director for Friedkin. The film is phenomenal and what I love the most about it, is that it is based on a true story.
We have discussed the French underworld on these pages before, yet the events depicted in the film, and in Robin Moore’s 1969 book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy take crime and criminal organisation to a completely new level. For over three decades from the end of the 1930s vast quantities of heroin, made from opium poppies grown in Turkey, slipped out of the port of Marseille and made their way to the US. At its peak the French Connection, as it became known, was shipping 5000 pounds (2300kg) of heroin a year to the US. The Union Corse, a criminal organisation operating between Corsica and Marseille, was responsible for this drug traffic and the scale of it dragged in government ambassadors, the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage, and two New York City detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso.
Robin Moore’s book is a stunning description of Egan and Grosso’s investigation as they track heavy spending in a New York nightclub to the shipment of 112 pounds (50kg) of pure heroin from Marseille. At the time it was the biggest heroin bust in US history, yet it almost slipped between their fingers. The investigation involved hundreds of local, federal and international law enforcement agencies over several long, tense months. Moore lays out, in mind-numbing detail the never-ending routine police work as officers tail their suspects, including Pasquale ‘Patsy’ Fuca, a member of the famed Lucchese crime family, across the city. As a piece of nonfiction, I think it has been unfairly overshadowed by nonfiction works from other writers, which is a shame because it is extraordinary. Moore’s telling of the story fascinates through its lack of hero for most of the book. It is impossible to overlook the fact that the police, despite having hundreds of officers working on the case managed to let their suspects disappear only for an astonishing run of good luck, and vast reserves of determination, to turn things back in Egan and Grosso’s favour.
Under Friedkin’s direction, Egan and Grosso became ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider). The real-life Egan and Grosso worked as advisors to the film and as actors in it, taking on two minor roles. They also ensured that filming was not interrupted given that Friedman shot many scenes without the necessary licenses and permits. Egan and Grosso’s presence on set discouraged anyone looking too closely into the paperwork. Over forty years later it seems incredible that Friedkin was not initially keen on the idea of Hackman in the lead role. I cannot imagine anyone else playing Doyle and Hackman’s Best Actor award is well deserved as his portrayal of a tough, racist New York cop is outstanding and the car chase sequence, with Hackman behind the wheel, is one of the most iconic moments in film history. Watching it today it is clear that many of the collisions, which made the sequence so effective, are actually real.
The dismantling of the French Connection led to a large scale investigation into corruption within the NYPD, not least because the heroin from the ‘Patsy’ Fuca operation and other quantities from similar police activity were taken from the police evidence room in what was later proved to be an inside job. Knowing that Moore’s book was a true story and that his own film adaptation was essentially a re-telling of that story Friedkin wanted to show New York City as it had never been shown before. That meant showing police corruption and the criminal underworld side by side. He said, really, in many ways, I felt this was a crude poem to the city.
Crude it may be, but it is also outstanding. Among others, it beat A Clockwork Orange and Fiddler on the Roof to the Academy Award. It really is that good.