Popeye Shoots Nicoli in ‘The French Connection’

Based on the real-life exploits of two New York City detectives, The French Connection is a crime thriller about a French drug lord attempting to smuggle millions of dollars worth of heroin into the United States and the police investigators working to stop him.

New York City detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are not ‘good’ cops per se, resorting to some rather unorthodox methods for catching bad guys and trying to keep their streets clean. Popeye especially has a rough reputation for beating up suspects and being too aggressive. In the days before CCTV and smartphones, he was a cop getting results under the cover of back alleyways and intimidation. His character is streetwise and honest but no-nonsense and hard-nosed. He doesn’t work well others, expect his partner, and when a Fed joins the investigation, tempers flare as the agent believes Popeye’s reckless attitude is what got a cop killed a few years earlier.

The French drug lord, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), catches on that Popeye has tapped his phones and might be getting too close, so his number-two guy, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffidecides it’s time to take the cop out, though Charnier thinks it’s a bad idea; cops just replace dead cops. Nicoli insists and tracks the detective to his apartment and hides up on the roof. In broad daylight, he takes a rifle shot at the policeman but misses, striking a young mother. Popeye pursues, starting what is one of the film’s history’s most memorable chases, which includes Popeye commandeering a vehicle and tearing through traffic as he follows the elevated train where Nicoli is fleeing.

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Gene Hackman actually drove the car for the entire stunt.

Nicoli is trapped on the train and kills a police officer before getting to the engine where he points a gun at the motorman. The man passes out after Nicoli kills another crewman and the train runs out of control to the end of the line and slams into a parked train. This hurls the killer into a glass paneled door and dazes him, where he drops his gun. By this time, Popeye has managed to demolition derby his way to the train and when Nicoli wobbles his way of the the train car and heads for the stairs, Doyle is there waiting. He sees the armed cop and turns to run away but Popeye fires and then collapses from exhaustion.

The French Connection
“Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman)

Directed by William Friedkin The French Connection won 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director and Actor. It established Hackman as one of the greatest actors of his generation, if not all time, and ushered in a new breed of cop thriller that still has influence to his day. This moment in particular is important for not only defining the character but demonstrating the film’s overall themes. The man he has been pursuing, who he knows for sure has at least injured if not killed a woman and attempted to kill him is now unarmed and within capture. When Nicoli spins to run away, although clearly disoriented, Doyle pulls the trigger and shoots the man square in the back. The implications of this act and revelation of just who Detective Doyle is are left to the viewer to decide, but it does suggest that the law is discretionary for Popeye, and he alone shall wield it for any outcome he sees fit.

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Marcel Bozzuffi as Pierre Nicoli, the French Hit Man (screenshot 77 mins.)

It’s pretty easy to see why this image of Doyle killing a man on the El Train station stairs was chosen as the primary marketing tool. Doing away with the standard conventions of film advertising, the “hero” of the film is, in the image, relegated to the background with his face obscured. That would never happen nowadays when stars are more important than story. Instead, we are given a brutal and frightening image of a man in his last moments, his arms thrust upwards, his legs buckling and his mouth agape in agony and fear. The copy on the poster has a blurb around the man firing his gun, identifying him as “bad news but a good cop” so, if we haven’t seen the movie, we can make some assumptions about the image straight away, guessing whomever the dying man is must be more bad news. It’s all very clever. But why does it work so well?

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Detail of the theatrical poster.

The image is not directly from the film but a staged promotional photograph. While it is on the actual steel stairwell used in the movie (86th Street in Brooklyn), a number of things are different than what happens in the film. In the movie, after Doyle reaches the spot where the train has crashed, he looks up and follows Nicoli along the trestle as he works his way to the stairs. Doyle meets him there with the cop at the bottom and the hit man at the top. Nicoli descends a few steps and then turns. Popeye fires and the killer rolls down to the bottom. There is a short landing between two flights that is clearly visible in the film. For the poster, Nicoli is positioned on the bottom flight and it gives the appearance that he is (or was) running from Doyle rather than what really happens where Nicoli had no idea Popeye was chasing him until descending the stairs. Furthermore, the angle is opposite from the film with the camera set to the left of the action in the poster while right in the movie. Note too, the use of color in comparison with the screen shot above where the film is grey and blue while the poster is saturated in a rusty blood red. More striking is the visual representation of light and dark with a tunneling effect from Doyle’s brilliantly washed out lighted stance to the ebony of the dying man’s coat and the black angular lines that surround him. “Good” is shown as smaller but victorious over “Evil”. Nicoli’s death pose is also very dramatic and recall’s Robert Capa’s controversial photograph The Falling Solider (1936) compared here:

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The French Connection relies heavily on the viewer’s emotional investment, asking us to question the morality of what a policeman can and should do to apprehend criminals. In the 70s, probably the last great golden age of film-making before the blockbuster came to dominate the direction in mainstream cinema. Many movies of this era were making a shift towards more realistic dramas and stories that real people could relate to. These “Street” movies were growing massively in popularity with 1969’s seamy and ultra dark Midnight Cowboy (also a Best Picture winner) paving the way. In the decade to follow, films and TV were popping up everywhere that catered to this new demand, ushering in an era of pictures that relied more on the locations and authenticity than on slick production, over-the-top action and bombastic scores that are the pillars of modern popular films. The French Connection is an excellent example and a standard by which many directors were influenced.

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Director:

William Friedkin

Writers:

Ernest Tidyman (screenplay), Robin Moore (based on the book by)

Stars:

Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey

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