The French Connection is a 1971 crime thriller directed by William Friedkin (who did The Exorcist two years later), and starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, and Tony Lo Bianco. The film is a fictionalized dramatization of The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy, a 1969 book about a famous 1962 drug bust.
In fact, Eddie “Popeye” Egan (whose fictionalized counterpart was played by Hackman–Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle) plays a supporting role as Doyle’s supervisor, Walt Simonson. Egan was also a technical supervisor for the film, as was his real-life partner, Sonny “Cloudy” Grosso (the film’s counterpart for whom was played by Scheider–Buddy “Cloudy” Russo). Grosso also appeared in the film, playing a federal agent named Klein.
Widely considered one of the best films ever made, The French Connection also boasts one of the best car chase scenes ever filmed, a deliberate–and successful–attempt to outdo the famous car chase scene in Bullitt. Indeed, chasing…pursuit…is a major theme in this film.
Here are some famous quotes:
“All right! You put a shiv in my partner. You know what that means? Goddammit! All winter long I got to listen to him gripe about his bowling scores. Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.” –Doyle, to black perp […]
Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: You dumb guinea.
Buddy “Cloudy” Russo: How the hell did I know he had a knife?
Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: Never trust a nigger.
Buddy “Cloudy” Russo: He could have been white.
Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: Never trust anyone! […]
“Yeah, I know Popeye. His brilliant hunches cost the life of a good cop.” –Bill Mulderig […]
[analyzing drug shipment] “Blast off: one-eight-oh.” [as thermometer keeps rising] “200: Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Two ten: U.S. Government certified. Two twenty: lunar trajectory, junk of the month club, sirloin steak. Two thirty: Grade A poison.” [when the thermometer tops at 240] “Absolute dynamite. Eighty-nine percent pure junk. Best I’ve ever seen. If the rest is like this, you’ll be dealing on this load for two years.” –Chemist
There are three distinct groups of people in this film: the wealthy French/US heroin dealers led by Alain Charnier (played by Rey, and based on Jean Jehan), whom Popeye charmingly calls “Frog One,” as well as Americans Boca and Weinstock; the New York City Police, including Popeye, “Cloudy” (Scheider), Bill Mulderig (played by Bill Hickman), and Simonson; and there are the black drug dealers and junkies who are bullied by the cops.
These three groups can be seen to symbolize the upper, middle, and lower classes of society. The wealthy French drug dealers, along with their American counterparts (such as upwardly-mobile Sal Boca [Lo Blanco], Joel Weinstock [Harold Gary], etc.) are, of course, mafia…and mafia are capitalists, as I’ve dealt with elsewhere.
The cops represent the middle class that envies the ruling class and wants to supplant them, while they also despise the poor, as symbolically made clear in the cops’ racism against blacks and Latinos. The conflict between cops and mafia on the one side, and between cops and blacks on the other, thus symbolizes class conflict in general.
After a brief opening scene in Marseilles, in which an undercover French cop has been seen trailing Charnier, then is killed by Pierre Nicoli (played by Marcel Bozzuffi), Charnier’s bodyguard/hitman; we go over to Brooklyn, where Doyle is dressed as Santa, and Cloudy is pretending to be a hot dog vendor. They’re outside a bar filled with blacks, at least some of whom are drug addicts/pushers.
Doyle, as Santa, is entertaining a group of little black boys, singing ‘Jingle Bells’ with them. Given what he and Cloudy are about to do regarding the black junkies in the bar, we should note the phoniness of Doyle’s attitude towards these kids.
Blacks and other racial minorities know better than anybody about the cruelties of police brutality, rooted in racial prejudice. Although “Popeye” was originally Eddie Egan’s nickname, and it had nothing to do with the cartoon character; his counterpart in the film is fictional enough to allow the false association with the cartoon hero, a false association especially justified when seen in light of Doyle’s introduction to us dressed as another children’s hero, Santa Claus.
When we see the cops as representatives of the middle class, or the upwardly-mobile petite bourgeoisie, we can see Doyle’s avuncular phoniness in its proper light. He pretends to be kind to the black boys because it’s part of his job; later, he’ll make no secret of his racism against blacks, Italians, Jews, the French, and Latinos (listen for his racial/ethnic slurs against all of these groups throughout the film).
Bourgeois liberals pretend to be kind to the less fortunate as long as their own class status isn’t threatened; when it is, though, they show their true colours, and the hero costuming is thrown aside, as it is when Doyle and Cloudy chase the knife-swinging black junkie, who slashes at them only in self-defence.
Only people as naïve as children would be fooled by the fake kindness of a petite bourgeois who ultimately keeps the class structure of society intact through force. This Popeye, this Santa, is no hero.
Doyle and Cloudy catch the guy, a representative of the proletariat and lumpenproletariat, and they engage in a kind of word salad to disorient him and manipulate him into confessing his crimes: “picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.” We see and hear this manipulation of our feelings with language all the time in the media, which distracts us with nonsense, so we won’t see the true nature of class relations around us.
Don Ellis‘s dissonant music for the film perfectly captures this sense of class conflict, as well as the seedy, slimy underbelly of New York.
Let’s now consider the drugs themselves, and what they mean in the context of this movie. Whether they’re heroin, pills, or marijuana, it doesn’t matter: they’re a commodity, representative of all commodities–use-values for all of us who need them or are addicted to them (in whatever way they may be addictive–literally as drugs, or a necessity or craving of some other kind), and exchange values for those who sell them, ultimately the ruling class of capitalist mafias.
Speaking of exchanges–and remember that in our imperialist, modern world, these exchanges often happen between countries–an exchange is being planned between Charnier’s heroin dealers in France and the American dealers in New York, including Sal Boca and Joel Weinstock.
These capitalists are the middle men who produce nothing, but make a huge profit in the exchange. They make a fortune exploiting the drug addicts with their commodity, while whoever makes the commodity is, in all probability, paid little in proportion to the value of the commodity they make–in this film’s case, some of the best quality heroin of the time.
Of all the people to be judging and attacking the black junkies, Popeye Doyle and cops of his ilk are the last who should be doing it. Doyle has a drug of his own–alcohol–and on top of that, he’s a womanizer, chasing pussy as much as he chases perps. The juxtaposition of these two pursuits should help us understand his real reason for doing it…desire.
He’s hardly stopping the “bad guys,” for he’s hardly any better than they are. Apart from his addiction to alcohol and women, he’s trigger happy, his violent excesses resulting in the needless deaths of his fellow cops, and he’s willing to shoot perps in the back. Some would call that murder, save for the police’s licence to kill.
As a cop, and as a womanizer, Doyle is a predator. A deleted scene shows him in his car, going after a pretty girl riding a bicycle (about 12 minutes into this video); as part of his plan to seduce her, he accuses her of breaking the law on her bike. He also takes her bicycle to ride around backwards on it, to harass her for the fun of it, as well as to manipulate her into bed. Some would say his behaviour borders on, if not lapses into, sexual assault.
So when we see him eyeballing, following, and chasing perps, whether by foot or by car, his pursuing shouldn’t be so naïvely misconstrued as a “good guy” going after the “bad guys.” I would compare Doyle to a character in Buddhist myth, namely, Ańgulimāla.
Having already killed almost a thousand victims, Ańgulimāla wanted his thousandth kill to be either the Buddha or–egad!–his mother. He chose the former, whom he chased after. Odd thing, though: the Buddha walked slowly while his would-be murderer raced after and could never catch up to him. Instead, the Buddha got further and further away from him!
Charnier’s calm elusiveness, if not his morality, can be compared to that of the Buddha. Doyle’s rage and frustration–as well as his immorality–from racing after and never catching “Frog One” is easily comparable to that of Ańgulimāla. Doyle is the archetypal “bad cop” to Cloudy’s “good cop.” Cloudy follows the rules, Doyle disregards them. Still, Cloudy supports his partner, just as bourgeois liberals, despite their “progressive” stance, defend the capitalist system. (Consider “progressive” Elizabeth Warren’s support of Hillary Clinton in 2016.)
Since I consider the cops to be an allegorical representation of the middle class, this lawful “good cop” and lawless “bad cop” can also be seen to represent two different kinds of capitalist: respectively, the liberal who advocates a ‘kinder, gentler’ capitalism (Cloudy), and a deregulated “free market” capitalism (Doyle), the neoliberal kind that not only fails to stop the ruling, haute bourgeoisie (Charnier), but actually reinforces neoliberalism‘s brutality and cruelty (Doyle’s violence).
What is Doyle’s reason for taking Cloudy to the Copacabana, a bar with rich mafiosi at one table, beginning the chain of events that lead to the heroin bust? Doyle wants to go there because of desire, his wish to get drunk and chase skirt. Here we see, in a symbolic sense, the root cause of his hunger to catch “Frog One”: Doyle is projecting, onto Charnier et al, his own desire for power over others. There’s a fine line between cop and criminal.
To be fair, there are always some individual good cops out there who honestly, though misguidedly, wish to do their part to make the world a better place by fighting crime. Nonetheless, this doesn’t change the fact that the purpose of law enforcement (outside the militsiya of the USSR and Soviet Bloc countries) is to protect the private property of the capitalist class. Doyle’s predation on Charnier is just a symbolizing of how capitalists, big or small, sometimes step on each other as well as on the poor.
Drug addiction should be considered a health issue rather than an excuse to lock people up. Junkies should be put into rehab—not behind bars, then exploited as prison slave labour. That cops like Doyle and Cloudy go after both the sellers and the buyers of dope shows they aren’t interested in doing what’s right: they only want to have power over others, then after (hopefully) successful busts, they can climb up the ranks of the police force.
By catching Charnier, Boca, et al, Doyle hopes to mend his shattered reputation as a cop. He’s accidentally caused the death of another cop, something about which federal agent Bill Mulderig won’t stop taunting him. Doyle’s wish to improve his social status is the motivation behind any bourgeois, from petite to haute.
Many in the middle class, be they left-leaning liberals or right-wing libertarians, despise the ruling class; but they hate the elite for the wrong reasons (feeling envy and indignation that the elite got to the top unfairly, while thinking that having a top-down society is still defensible), and/or their approaches to ending the inequality are hopelessly wrongheaded.
Doyle’s and Cloudy’s failure to catch Charnier, coupled with the largely minimal punishments meted out to the other criminals, symbolizes how the middle class’s conflict with the upper classes ends in failure every time. The global proletariat, united in solidarity, is the only hope in defeating the rich.
As Doyle and Cloudy are eyeing the mafia patrons at a table in the Copacabana, The Three Degrees are singing Jimmy Webb‘s “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon.” Everybody enjoys the electric performance of this black female trio, Angie Boca–in a blonde wig–clapping and shouting, “More!” In mostly white bourgeois society, being talented performers is just about the only way blacks can be included. Everybody fantasizes that he can get up as high as the moon, a lunatic land of filthy lucre, but few really get to go there in the real world. We’re just stuck down here on the Earth.
Sal Boca is upwardly-mobile, too, and with a dirty past (like Doyle); and he hopes that with this heroin deal, he and Angie can rise up to the ranks of the ruling class. Envious Doyle will do all he can to thwart Boca’s and Charnier’s hopes; Doyle is envious Cassius, Cloudy is well-meaning Brutus, Boca is rising Mark Antony, and Charnier is all-powerful Julius Caesar.
Doyle and Cloudy go into another bar frequented by black dope addicts, whom the two men bully, then they ruin their drugs. Since, as I’ve argued above, the black junkies represent the oppressed proletariat, and their drugs represent commodities in general, the ruining of them by the cops–who represent the middle class/petite bourgeoisie–represents capitalism’s depriving of the poor of the necessities of life. Addiction in this movie symbolizes hunger.
A black informant, who pretends to be another junkie bullied by Doyle (yet receives real punches and shoves), tells the cop about a major shipment of heroin to come in a week. The informant thus represents class collaboration.
All the local addicts have been going through a relative dry spell, with very little, if any, junk to enjoy; but when this heroin arrives, their troubles will be over…or so they hope. This lack of drugs, again, represents hunger and starvation, especially the kind suffered in the Third World. So, again, the drug bust, from the point of view of the addicts, represents every thwarted attempt developing countries make to improve their lot, i.e., through electing leftist governments overthrown by the US.
Charnier and his heroin business, however, must not–through the analogy of the above three paragraphs–be confused with any kind of liberation movement. Their profiting off of the addictions of the blacks represents the capitalist system’s enslaving of all of us to the need for commodities as exchange values. The junkies’ addiction is just commodity fetishism, which is also symbolized by the chemist’s assessment of the quality of the heroin about to be sold to the American dealers. We’re in awe of the value of the final product, but we pay no attention to the process of creating that value…which has come from workers.
Allied to this fetishizing of the commodity of heroin is how it can be compared to soma in Brave New World. The high is a religious-like ecstasy, and as we know, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Charnier, the supplier, is thus like a false spiritual leader, a fake Buddha, if you will, who calmly eludes the racing, raging Ańgulimāla that is Doyle in the subway. Like the cops, Charnier only seems good, that is, from the junkies’ point of view, since they so crave his ‘soma.’ (<<Every junkie gets to go to a moon of a different kind.) People at the top of any hierarchy–political, religious, etc.–can fool the masses into thinking they make good leaders.
Note how oppressors of the lower classes can be as masochistic as they are sadistic. Doyle seduces the girl on the bike, but she uses his handcuffs to chain him to his bed. He seems rather amused when he calls her a “crazy kid.” Similarly, there’s a deleted scene (starting at about 5:40 here) in which Nicoli pays a prostitute to whip him; nonetheless, he threatens her by grabbing her at the throat when she complains that he’s fifty dollars short. The upper classes always cheat the working class, including sex workers.
Recall the corrupt ones in power in Sade‘s erotic writing, who enjoy receiving as well as giving pain. Many examples can be found in Juliette. Recall also Freud’s words, “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist” (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality). Finally, recall Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, which can be symbolized by these ‘sadomasochistic’ scenes.
The sadist in Nicoli comes out again when he opts to shoot Doyle, even when it seems unnecessary and even dangerous to Charnier. After the failed attempt in a sniper shooting, which kills a mother standing near Doyle just outside his home, it’s the cop’s turn to display his sadistic tendencies in the famous car/train chase scene.
While catching the sniper before he can have a chance to strike again is understandable, the lengths Doyle is willing to go to in order to catch Nicoli are far beyond reasonable. He knows perfectly well how outrageously he’s breaking the law in his pursuit, but he does it anyway.
Beeping the car horn in an endless ostinato, he drives through red light after red light, cutting other drivers and pedestrians off, and speeding like a maniac. He’s the classic case of a driver who thinks he ‘owns the road.’ This is reckless driving in the extreme, endangering people’s lives on every inch of the road he’s going over in the car he’s commandeering.
What he’s doing isn’t about the cops catching a perp–this is a personal vendetta. The hunter and hunted have simply switched roles: it isn’t ‘the good guys’ going after ‘the bad guys.’ This chase symbolizes, as does the rest of the movie, the class conflict between the rising petite bourgeoisie (Doyle et al) and the haute bourgeoisie (Charnier et al), while the proletariat (the junkies) gain nothing in the exchange.
That Doyle is no less a criminal than Nicoli is clear when the former shoots the latter in the back. At such close range, from the bottom to the top of a staircase, Doyle could have shot Nicoli in the leg or the arm; he chooses the back because he wants to kill him, just as he wants to kill Charnier (which he does at the end of French Connection II), and just as he doesn’t care at all if he kills or injures anyone during the car/train chase.
Police advisers on the set objected to Doyle’s shooting of Nicoli precisely on the grounds that it’s murder, but Friedkin defended the shooting, knowing that such a move is exactly what the real Popeye, Egan, would have done…and this should tell you something about real cops.
Note how, throughout this movie, we never see the production of the heroin, nor the use of it by the junkies; we only see the circulation process of the commodity, an issue focused on in Capital, Vol. II, something the capitalist would prefer to get through as quickly as possible, to bring about the turnover and put his capital back into production. A speed-up of the “switch” is what Charnier wants, surely not only for his own safety from the predatory cops, but also to keep his business moving.
This circulation process of exchanging a commodity for money (C-M), or money for a commodity (M-C), is the focal point of capitalism. So we learn of the heroin smuggled into the US in the car of French TV personality Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), hidden in the rocker panels, as well as the plan to sell it to Weinstock and Boca.
When the “switch” happens, we see the full explosion of class conflict, of “one capitalist always strikes down many others” (Marx, page 929), as symbolized in the shootout in the abandoned factory between the cops and the American and French mafiosi. Cloudy shoots Boca, and Doyle follows Charnier into a filthy, abandoned warehouse.
Mulderig–who, recall, has been taunting Doyle about having killed a cop–is also looking around the filthy place, its filthiness symbolic of the destruction and decay caused by the ownership of private property. Trigger-happy Doyle hears Mulderig and, thinking he’s Charnier, shoots him. Feeling not even the slightest remorse, and probably glad he killed him (Was the shooting a kind of Freudian slip?), Doyle continues hunting Charnier, whom he never catches.
A gunshot is heard offscreen, presumably Doyle’s, since he so badly wants to kill Charnier. This is the way the film ends, not only with a bang, but also a whimpering horn. The French Connection is thus, in a way, like the French Revolution: the middle class (symbolized by Doyle et al) takes on the aristocracy (symbolized by Charnier et al), but the bourgeoisie (be they petite or above), by their very nature, never create the justice they claim to fight for…since they never really wanted it, anyway.
The French Revolution removed the monarchy, but ended up, after a bloodbath, in the dictatorship of Napoleon. Similarly, Charnier is never caught, and is presumed to be back in France; so he can continue running his heroin empire. And though Doyle and Cloudy are taken out of the narcotics bureau, cops will still go around busting junkies instead of helping to end the problem of addiction in general. This symbolizes how the same class structure stays intact, regardless of whether the bourgeoisie or the aristocracy is at the top.
Ask the Communards, or the gilets jaunes, what they think of the ‘liberal democracy’ that replaced the French monarchy, with Macron as the new Napoleon. The new boss is essentially the same as the old boss…because he is a boss. Violence is always there, too. Hence the bang, and the whimper.
12 thoughts on “Analysis of ‘The French Connection’”