Secrets of ‘The French Connection’ on 50th anniversary

It’s the heart-stopping moment when a bashed-in Pontiac LeMans hurtles beneath NYC’s elevated subway at 90-miles-an-hour, dodging traffic and pedestrians in a wild race to keep up with a hijacked N train rumbling overhead. That five-minute sequence — a crash course in ‘70s guerrilla filmmaking — is now regarded by many to be the best movie car chase of all time. 

However, with the 50th anniversary of “The French Connection” revving up this week, legendary actor Gene Hackman is blunt about the genuinely death-defying scene — and the lasting impact of the gritty cop drama that won him the first of his two Oscars.

“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,” the reclusive Hackman, 91, who retired from the screen in 2004, told The Post in a rare interview — his first in a decade.

“As for the car chase, there was a better one filmed a few years earlier with Steve McQueen,” he added via email, slyly referencing his fellow film icon’s motorized Mustang stampede through the rolling hills of San Francisco in 1968’s “Bullitt.”

Gene Hackman in 1971 as NYPD narcotics detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in “The French Connection” (left) and on the red carpet for one of his last public appearances: the 2001 premiere of “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
20th Century Fox/Getty Images

Potential East Coast-West Coast beefs aside, Hackman’s classic NYC crime thriller has secured its spot in cinematic history. But to the 26-block stretch of Brooklyn — spanning Gravesend to Bensonhurst — on which its most iconic scene was shot, the moment appears all but forgotten.

Half-a-century on, virtually every store lining the streets under that tract of above-ground subway has changed dramatically, legendary director William Friedkin, 86, told The Post. Upon returning to the area decades later, he found the corner of Brooklyn was not nearly “as funky a neighborhood as it was” when “The French Connection” premiered in theaters on Oct. 7, 1971. 

THEN & NOW: In honor of the film's 50th anniversary on Oct. 7, scenes from the locations of "The French Connection," starring Gene Hackman (center) in his Oscar-winning turn as boozing, bigoted NYPD narc Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle.
THEN & NOW: In honor of the film’s 50th anniversary on Oct. 7, The Post revisited locations from William Friedkin’s “The French Connection,” starring Hackman (center) as boozing, bigoted NYPD detective “Popeye” Doyle. The 1971 film won five Oscars in 1972 for best picture, actor, director, screenplay and editing.
NY Post composite/Stephen Yang/Everett Collection

‘It was only by the grace of God that nobody was hurt or injured in any way — or died because of that.’

William Friedkin, on shooting the film’s white-knuckle chase scene illegally

Some things have stayed the same, though: Today, the nabe still feels lightyears from Manhattan, and light still filters through the subway’s slats, throwing patterned sunshine onto the pavement. The world of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (the late Roy Scheider), however, is long gone — but it never truly existed beyond Friedkin’s young maverick mind anyway. 

“[I] created my own version of New York,” Friedkin said of his silver screen setting for the true crime story of two NYPD Narcotics Detectives who, in 1961, busted a prolific heroin-smuggling ring.

Yes, his movie captured the “purgatorial” early ‘70s reality of the Big Apple as it rotted into bankruptcy, but Friedkin is hesitant to call “The French Connection” a period piece. Too much of the movie’s magic was manifested not by the era but his own mad vision and the fact that “I was blessed, as I was in ‘The Exorcist,’ with a perfect cast.” 

Roy Scheider ("Jaws," "All That Jazz") and Gene Hackman as NYPD partners busting a heroin-smuggling ring in "The French Connection."
Roy Scheider (“Jaws,” “All That Jazz”) and Hackman as cops busting a heroin-smuggling ring in “The French Connection.” Hackman told The Post: “At the time, it seemed to me to be a reverent story of a cop who was simply able to solve and put a stop to a major crime family’s attempt to infiltrate the NY drug scene.”
20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

Indeed, all these years later, 1972’s Academy Award-winning best director is most shocked not by how five decades have distorted his former outer borough film set, but by how insane he was to attempt many of the shots he got, shots which certainly wouldn’t be possible today — but then, 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 said, reflecting on his helming halcyon days. “As successful as the film was, I wouldn’t do that now. I had put people’s lives in danger.” 

That car chase scene, for one, was shot illegally. 

“In 1971 we could not get people to join the NYC Police Department,” Jurgensen told The Post of the movie’s impact. “After this picture played, there was an uptick in people joining.”

“So many things have changed, particularly about police work,” Friedkin told The Post. “The cops in ‘French Connection’ were members of the narcotics bureau in the First Precinct. There’s no longer a narcotics bureau in NY.”

A still from the movie’s most famous scene, and a moment in time in Brooklyn.

Randy Jurgensen and William Friedkin reminisce about the film decades later on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Randy Jurgensen — the famed NYPD detective who later consulted on Friedkin’s controversial “Cruising” and “Donnie Brasco” — was crouched in the back of the Pontiac, ready to show his badge to anyone who asked, while Friedkin himself (he stepped in so the cameramen, who all had families, didn’t have to put their lives on the line) and camera operator Enrique Bravo (an extremely steady hand who’d traveled with Castro filming the Cuban revolution) shot stuntman Bill Hickman careening thorough the underpass using three cameras, all hooked up to the Pontiac (“We couldn’t afford a camera car.”)

Friedkin did, however, manage to secure permits to shoot on the train itself — for the price of $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica. 

“‘If I give you permission to do this, I will be fired,’” the city official allegedly explained to Friedkin at the time, when the director asked why he didn’t want a return flight. 

In another moment of vision-motivated lunacy, Friedkin recalls telling Jurgensen “In about 45 minutes I’m going to be ready to shoot a traffic jam on the Brooklyn Bridge, and he said ‘I understand’” before getting various off-duty policeman to drive onto the bridge, stop, and create the traffic jam seen in the film. When a police helicopter came over to investigate, Jurgensen simply showed his badge. “They were furious,” recalled Friedkin — but they disappeared. “I would not do anything like that today,” he noted. 

Virtually none of the storefronts lining the 26-block stretch of Brooklyn when “The French Connection” car chase scene was shot there remain today.

The set of the iconic “The French Connection”‘ car chase scene — revisited in October, 2021.

In all, it was something of a miracle the movie had no casualties. 

“It was only by the grace of God that nobody was hurt or injured in any way — or died because of that,” Friedkin said. 

In honor of the film’s 50th, Jurgensen — “the last living French Connection detective” — will be attending a November celebration put on by ​​The Academy, and last month had a large Italian dinner in Queens with a group of men who all appeared as extras in the film, he told The Post. Friedkin said he “might show up” at one of the planned anniversary screenings, too.

Producer Philip D’Antoni wiht the best picture Oscar for “The French Connection,” alongside best actor Gene Hackman, best actress Jane Fonda (for “Klute”) and best director William Friendkin.

William Friedkin stares at his best director Academy Award for "The French Connection."
William Friedkin stares at his best director Academy Award for “The French Connection.”

Gene Hackman in the teeth-gritting car chase scene that made history in "The French Connection."
Gene Hackman in the teeth-gritting car chase scene that made history in “The French Connection.”

Gene Hackman wields his weapon as NYPD narcotics detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle in "The French Connection."
Gene Hackman sports his iconic porkpie hat as NYPD narcotics detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in “The French Connection.”

As for the movie’s star, Hackman has never bothered to rewatch “The French Connection” and has no plans for its anniversary. “[I] haven’t seen the film since the first screening in a dark, tiny viewing room in a post-production company’s facility 50 years ago,” he told The Post, adding that “if the film has a legacy, I am not sure what that would be. At the time, it seemed to me to be a reverent story of a cop who was simply able to solve and put a stop to a major crime family’s attempt to infiltrate the New York drug scene.”

The reclusive actor, who ditched Hollywood to bask in the sunsets of Santa Fe with his classical pianist wife Betsy Arakawa, 59, does allow that the film — featuring what’s considered by many to be his greatest performance as boozing, bigoted Popeye — is a highlight. “The film certainly helped me in my career, and I am grateful for that,” said the man who went on to star in a string of cult classics and mainstream hits, including “The Conversation,” “Superman,” “Hoosiers,” “Unforgiven,” “The Birdcage” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

William Friedkin at a 2016 Academy screening of "The French Connection," and having a beer with Gene Hackman during a promotional tour for their seminal film in in 1971.
Friedkin at a 2016 Academy screening of “The French Connection,” and having a beer with Hackman during a promotional tour for their seminal film in in 1971.
Getty Images

Meanwhile, the biggest tribute to “The French Connection” on its landmark anniversary is perhaps its enduring popularity — a pleasant surprise to Friedkin, who openly admits he never anticipated his flick would have such a lasting impact.

“I think we’ll get away with this,” Friedkin remembers telling his producer when shooting wrapped. “But don’t get your Oscar speech ready.” 

As for his personal opinion on how today’s viewers should interpret his cinematic marvel, Friedkin said “I think the takeaway is it’s a pretty damn good action film.”


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