William Friedkin’s 1971 crime thriller The French Connection is a New Hollywood classic that marked the beginning of a glorious period in the history of American cinema. The film follows a short-tempered detective and his partner as they navigate through the filth of New York City. It ended up winning 5 Academy Awards, including wins for Best Picture and Best Director but its legacy extends far beyond that.
While talking about the works in his filmography that he was most satisfied with, Friedkin said: “I’m very happy with Jade, Rules of Engagement, Killer Joe, Bug, The Exorcist… I would have to say Sorcerer, and The French Connection. Those come immediately to mind. And To Live and Die in L.A. And it’s not that I achieved them, or realised them perfectly, but I did come very close to my vision of them in the execution.”
On the occasion of The French Connection’s 50th anniversary, several key figures involved in the production process took the time out to speak to the New York Post about the project. The film’s star, Gene Hackman, said: “Filmmaking has always been risky — both physically and emotionally — but I do choose to consider that film a moment in a checkered career of hits and misses.”
Friedkin also looked back with mixed feelings about the making of The French Connection. “[I] created my own version of New York,” Friedkin conceded. “I was blessed, as I was in The Exorcist, with a perfect cast.” However, there were some scenes that were questionable from a safety standard. When asked whether those shots would be possible now, Friedkin answered that they “weren’t possible then — we just did it.”
“I was like Captain Ahab pursuing the whale. [I had] a supreme confidence, a kind of sleepwalker’s assurance,” Friedkin reflected. “As successful as the film was, I wouldn’t do that now. I had put people’s lives in danger.” He acknowledged the fact that his team was in actual danger on multiple occasions and someone could have lost their life.
The iconic car chase scene in The French Connection was actually shot illegally. With the help of NYPD detective Randy Jurgensen, Friedkin managed to get off-duty cops to drive onto the bridge and create a major traffic jam even though a city official told the filmmaker that it was impossible back then: “If I give you permission to do this, I will be fired.”
“I would not do anything like that today,” Friedkin admitted. “It was only by the grace of God that nobody was hurt or injured in any way — or died because of that.” Having said that, he did appreciate the enduring legacy of The French Connection: “I think the takeaway is it’s a pretty damn good action film.”