French Connection: How the greatest car chase of all time was designed

French Connection: How the greatest car chase of all time was designed

Gene Hackman is tracking down the mobsters tonight on Arte.

The career of William Friedkin is like his two most famous films: heteroclite. Before scaring the entire planet with The Exorcisthe contributed to the seventh art by staging one of the most emblematic car chase scenes in French Connection, released in 1971. Tonight, Arte is dedicating its evening to the director by broadcasting these two classics. In 2017, during a masterclass given at the Lumière Festival in Lyon, Friedkin had uncovered the secrets of the sequence that made French Connection also cult.

Stronger than Bullitt ? We can argue endlessly about the greatest car chases in the history of cinema (those of Police Power 7 And Ronin are not bad either) but everyone will agree that that of French Connectionin 1971, remains a standard meter – even its author, William Friedkinthen spent part of his career trying to beat his own record (in Los Angeles Federal Police And Jade). Popeye Doyle (the obsessive cop played by Gene Hackman) racing the elevated metro in a 1971 Pontiac LeMans: the origin of this piece of bravery may be found in a remark made a few years earlier by the illustrious Howard Hawks to William Friedkin, noting that there were more and more car chases in the movies: ” Why not make a car chase that’s actually longer than the others? Why not imagine a movie that’s just one endless car chase? ” A joke that Friedkin clearly took very seriously.

In a masterclass given at the Lumière Festival in Lyon in 2017, William Friedkin recounted how he had to circumvent the law to carry out his diabolical plan and shoot the most insane car chase ever filmed. Excerpts:

“First of all, know that if I had seen Buster Keaton’s films before French ConnectionI would never have embarked on the design of a car chase. Because it was Buster Keaton who made the greatest car chase scenes. The car chase, in my eyes, is cinema in its purest form. You can only account for a car chase by manipulating images, sound and editing. This is something that neither painting, nor literature, nor music, nor any other artistic form can do. When it came to designing the car chase of French ConnectionI was aware that the best scene of the genre was recent, it was in an American film called Bullittwith Steve McQueen. I asked myself the question: “How can I do things differently?” I eventually realized that what was bothering me in Bullitt – which is a great movie, the greatest American crime movie – was that the chase was taking place on deserted streets. The streets of San Francisco had been evacuated and the cars were hurtling down hills. There was no one in sight! Which meant there was no danger, except for the drivers of the two cars. When we started French Connectionthere was no car chase in the script – there was no script, in fact… That didn’t stop us from winning the Oscar for best screenplay! One day, my producer and I said to each other: “ Let’s go for a walk in Manhattan. We walk straight for 45 blocks, we talk, we throw ideas into the air, we think of a chase that is pure New York. “In New York, like in Paris, there are thousands of people in the streets, cars, smoke, and the subway which, sometimes, is elevated. There were three elevated subway lines left in New York. We then had the idea of ​​a chase between a car and an elevated subway. So we had to invent how a guy had ended up in the subway, chased by another guy below, in a car, when originally, they were both chasing each other on foot!”

Friedkin Uncut: an exhilarating documentary about the director of The Exorcist, to watch on Arte

Friedkin continues: “We had to get permission from the New York Transit Authority (the local RATP – editor’s note), so we went to see the public relations director. He listened to my story and he said to me: “You’re crazy. It’s impossible for something like this to happen: no one has ever hijacked a subway car. We’ve never seen two cars crash into each other either. This is crazy! It’s almost impossible to give you permission for this.” So we thanked him and turned on our heels. I was already thinking about how we were going to “steal” this scene, shoot it without permission, when, just as we were getting to the door, he said: “Wait? Where are you going?” We answer him: “You just told us it was impossible.” “Nohe replies, I said it was ALMOST impossible“My producer was Sicilian and he immediately understood what the other meant. He simply replied: “How much ?“The price was $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica.”Why a one-way ticket?“, I asked. – “Because if I give you permission to do that, I’m going to get fired, so I might as well move to Jamaica.“And that’s what he did!

“So we were allowed to film in the subway. We weren’t allowed to film in the street, though. We drove a car equipped with three cameras, which was speeding at 130 km/h, for 26 blocks, running red lights, with no traffic control. The accident that you see in the scene wasn’t supposed to happen, it wasn’t premeditated. (the stuntman driving the other car had miscalculated his approach time – editor’s note). We put human lives in danger, I put my own life in danger and, by the grace of God, no one got hurt. I would never do that again today. I didn’t realize this when I was young: cinema is important, vital, but there is nothing in cinema that justifies a squirrel spraining its ankle.

In his autobiography, Friedkin Connectionthe director also describes the feeling of “exhaustion” and of “terror” he felt as he got out of the car – he was the one holding the camera behind the driver’s shoulder (stuntman Bill Hickman) because he didn’t want to endanger the life of his cinematographer Owen Roizman. Friedkin concludes: “The chase sequence was important in its own right, but also because it was a metaphor for Doyle’s obsession. I shot several scenes with the intention of emphasizing his character (…). In the editing room, I discovered that much of what I had filmed was, in fact, structuring. Obsession was the central theme of the film. The characters did not need their character “emphasized”; it was the action that defined it.

French Connection is broadcast on Arte at 8:55 p.m.

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