When The French Connection hit theaters on October 9th, 1971, the cops and robbers genre of film had pretty much played every tune in its arsenal. The 1930s and 40s saw to that. With Film Noir leading the way, Hollywood would lead the way in spinning quite a few decent crime yarns. The French Connection would not break any new ground in storytelling. Where it found its voice was how it told its story.
Throughout cinematic history, cops and robber films have adhered, or been made to adhere, to the well worn good guy, bad guy dichotomy. This was due to a production code that regulated content in American cinema for over thirty years. Says Wikipedia:
“The Production Code spelled out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States.”
It also made it clear that the bad guys could never win. Films needed a certificate from the MPAA from the 1930s to the 1960s to have a theatrical release.
By the time The French Connection even hit production, the production code was banished to the wastelands of history. Filmmakers didn’t have to consult any censor. Black and white storytelling were no longer forced on the filmmaker. The good guy didn’t have to always be good, nor did he have to come out on top in the end.
Enter Gene Hackman.
Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle is no saint. He is deeply flawed. As Roger Greenspun’s October 7 review for the New York Times notes:
Hard nosed, pork-pie-hatted, vulgar(…)He exists neither to rise or fall – but to fumction. To function in New York City is its own heroism.
He is human.
Filmmakers would find the perfect actor to bring James Doyle to the screen in Hackman. One of the most underrated actors of all time, Hackman, at the age of 31, was never a typical Hollywood leading man. He would first be noticed in Warren Beatty’s innovative classic Bonnie and Clyde. Hackman would be a leader in the modern day acting style, perfect for Doyle, who job was his identity.
His lack of neither success or nor glaring failure was uniquely new in cinema. The documentary style utilized by director William Friedkin more than aides the gritty realism that made it stand out. It would also compliment the lead actor Gene Hackman’s performance as Doyle.