Year Released: 1971
Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Gene Hack, Roy Schneider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco
(R, 104 min.)
Academy Awards (1971)
Actor in a Leading Role: Gene Hackman
Directing: William Friedkin
"Last time you were dead certain we had a dead cop." Federal agent to Popeye Doyle
The test of a good pizza is eating it cold the next day. If it is really authentic, as my mother’s was, with lots of pungent oregano, real Italian sausage, and a light homemade crust, it actually tastes as good or better on Saturday morning as it did on Friday night.
And that’s true with films as well. How many times have you watched one of your all time favorites from 10 or 20 years ago and been not just disappointed, but even slightly embarrassed, because like more than a few Hollywood stars, it hasn’t aged well?
Well, that certainly isn’t the case with Gene Hackman’s breakout role as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. It’s still as lean and mean as those dark and dirty streets of New York City 40 some years ago. This landmark 1971 “cop and caper classic” was a commercial and critical success, earning a slew of Oscars -- Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor to name a few.
This film was made before the city had its glamour makeover and was slickly marketed the Big Apple. In fact, it was probably made before many of you were born. Let me set the tone by quoting a fellow named Nick, who has taken it upon himself to describe some of “Cinema’s Greatest Badasses:” He gives high billing to Gene Hackman’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, the make-his-own-rules narcotics-cop based on real life policeman Eddie Egan:
It doesn’t get much grittier than an early 70’s New York narc, and Popeye Doyle is the grittiest of the lot. He doesn’t seem to dog, bust and shoot bad guys to keep people safe, more to satisfy some nasty, brutal desire. Bigoted, vice-ridden and perennially abusive, he constantly teeters on the verge of being unlikeable. Less badass and more just bad, he loves to flash his badge, rough up scumbags and shake down whole bars. Nobody has the balls to defy him cos he’s so frickin’ scary (Gene Hackman – cinema’s greatest shouter). Kills a colleague in a friendly fire incident and doesn’t even blink. Perhaps his only saving grace is his obsessive tenacity; once he has you in his sights, the man will stay on your ass until you are either busted or dead, much to the lament of any citizen whose car he might commandeer along the way.
“Gritty” seems to be the going word here. Director Freidkin, who got his start making documentaries, perfectly captures the mean streets of New York, as well as a few in Marseilles, France, home of the suave but ruthless drug smuggler played to perfection by Fernando Rey. The film is in color, but it is muted, and the camera seems drawn to crumbling buildings, dank alleyways, and stagnant puddles of dark water.
Anti-hero Popeye Doyle, named, I guess for the pork pie hat he wears, keeps us rooting for him even as his unconventional, even thuggish tactics do little to differentiate him from the bad guys he pursues. But heck, he’s a working class stiff, not unlike Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer from The Ipcress File. I mean, Doyle lives in public housing, for pity’s sake, making it when he can with anything that wears boots, and he does things his way, even if it means breaking the rules and a few jaws along the way.
Apparently, quite a few leading men at the time found the realism a little too gritty. James Caan, Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, and Lee Marvin all turned down the role. Hackman himself, purportedly, found the it hard to spit out some of the racial slurs Doyle utters. But he gets not just under the skin but into the gut of this poor Irish cop who is actually a complex guy, just on the other side of the thin blue line from the low-lifes he busts for a living. If you rent the sequel, The French Connection II, which further explores his character, you will see some of the best method style acting ever filmed from Hackman, though the pacing of the sequel directed by John Frankenheimer cannot stand up to the disciplined direction former documentary maker William Friedkin exerted in the original.
No self-indulgence there. Every scene is as lethal and efficient as the well-oiled Smith and Wesson Popeye Doyle carries in his ankle holster. Of course, the scene everyone remembers is the chase scene, this one, according to many critics, outdoing the famous San Francisico car chase from Steven McQueen’s Bullitt 3 years earlier. McQueen drove a souped up Ford Mustang, but Doyle has to appropriate what there is from a local. He is on the street level, while his quarry, French smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) rides above him on the elevated train. Hackman does at least half of the actual driving here, one reason he wrested the role from another actor who, three weeks into filming, turned out to be no good behind the wheel. Perhaps one reason for the great pacing of the chase is that it was cut to the tempo of Carlos Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” even though there is not a note of music played throughout the entire sequence.
In this day of CGI action with over the top everything, The French Connection holds up because they did things the old fashioned way, with live action shots, even leaving in a few unplanned sequences, such as the car crash on 86th street. Another accident was in the casting of Fernando Rey as the “French Connection,” when the actor Director Willaim Friedkin had in mind was actually Frenchman Francisco Rabal, whom he had seen in Belle de Jour. Spaniard Rey spoke no French, but when they found out the original choice spoke no English and wasn’t available anyway, they went with Rey, who like Hackman, went on to own his part.
They contrast between the two rivals, the sophisticated Frenchman, and the vulgar American cop, is what anchors the film. Charnier has a lovely wife, a mansion overlooking the harbor in Marseilles, and a yacht where he rubs elbows with his wealthy friends while he plans his heroin smuggling with the ruthless efficiency of any other CEO.
Hackman isn’t suave or even good-looking; we’re not sure if his boot-clad one-nighter is voluntary or paid-for-goods. His supervisor looks on him as only slightly less despicable that the junkies he hounds, but Popeye has his gut, and the relentless drive of a bloodhound on the scent.
He lives in a dirty world and fights by its rules. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
One of the most telling scenes in The French Connection involves Popeye Doyle’s long New York stakeout of the French smuggler, who wines and dines himself on a gourmet feast while Doyle watches from the cold streets outside. The Frenchman slowly makes it through a seven course meal, while Doyle, stomping his feet to stave off the cold, eats an equally cold slice of commercial pizza.
Let’s keep with the pizza motif that introduced our review and try for some equality here as we give the New York detective a gourmet version of his meal, a French pizza called Pissaladière. I have eaten the real thing in France and it is definitely scrumptious.
According to Chris Albano, our recipe source:
The flavors are an explosion in the mouth. Salt brined olives contrast with sweet caramelized onions and earthy undertones of thyme. And then we get another punch of flavor from the anchovies. Some versions use puff pastry, which gives a softer chew than crisp pizza dough. According to Jacques Médecin, a former Mayor from Nice, the layer of onions should be half the thickness of the dough.
I have actually eaten this great dish when I visited Strasbourg, France. Like some of the best cooking in the world, it combines Italian -- or in this case Roman -- and French traditions. It is truly delicious and reminds me of the Southern German onion pie called Zwiebelkuchen.
It is believed to have been introduced to the area by Roman cooks during the time of the Avignon Papacy.
The Onion pizza - Pissaladière can be considered a type of white pizza, as no tomatoes are used.
The dough in the onion pizza recipe is usually thicker than that of the classic Italian pizza.
It has a topping consisting of sautéed (almost pureed) onions, olives, and anchovies.
Cheese is not used, again unlike the Neapolitan pizza, yet just over the border, in the Italian town of San Remo, mozzarella is added.
Now eaten as a starter or appetizer, the Provencal Onion Pizza - Pissaladière was traditionally cooked and sold early each morning.
FOR THE DOUGH: (You don’t really have to make your own; just use a regular pizza dough or bread dough, or even a prepared crust. -- Different Drummer’s Lazy Gourmet suggestion)
1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
1 pkg. active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water (110-115 degrees)
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. olive oil
FOR THE TOPPING:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 onions, peeled and julienned
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon dried
1/4 cup kalamata olives (or your favorite)
6 anchovy filets
For the dough:
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in lukewarm water and set aside for 5 minutes. In large mixing bowl, combine 2-3/4 cups flour and the salt; stir yeast mixture and oil into the flour until a dough forms. On a lightly floured work surface, knead the dough about 10 minutes, working in remaining flour until dough is not sticky.
Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until double in size, about 40 minutes. Punch the dough down and on a lightly floured surface form the crust with the palms of your hand or a rolling pin.
Note: If using a Pizza Stone, preheat your oven with the stone in it about one hour before you want to cook the pizza.
For the topping:
Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.
Add onions and add sugar, salt and pepper. Cook for 10 minutes then start to stir around. The one on the bottom should get a dark color but not burnt.
Cover and cook over medium low heat 15-20 minutes until you achieve a marmalade-like consistency.
Roll dough out on counter with small amount of bench flour.
Place on a cornmeal covered pizza peel( a shovel-like tool used by bakers to slide loaves of bread, pizzas, pastries, and other baked goods into and out of an oven)and top with the onion mixture, thyme and chopped anchovies. Slide carefully onto pizza stone in preheated oven
Bake 15 minutes or until crust is nicely browned.
If you don't have a pizza stone place on an oiled pizza pan or sheet pan.
Recipe Source: Suite 101.com