The Fox Thriller That Became The First R-Rated Film To Win Best Picture

MOVIES

William Friedkin was an inveterate s**t-stirrer. Whatever you think of his 1970 adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play “The Boys in the Band,” it was a landmark work of gay cinema that most career-savvy directors of the era would have avoided. Friedkin wanted to get in the audience’s face. He wanted to rattle them. But, above all, he wanted to deliver an exhilarating celluloid experience.

Based on the real-life exploits of New York City detective Eddie Egan, Friedkin also crafted a full-throttle portrait of police work as street-level warfare. Sound familiar? Probably every awful cop of a certain era that ever donned the shield viewed Gene Hackman’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle as a ruthless-means-to-an-end hero. Narcotics are the scourge of the city. They must be eradicated. Ditto the lowlifes who push them.

“The French Connection” raises these stakes by offering Doyle the opportunity to take down a well-heeled Gallic supplier of heroin. His days of busting up African-American bars in the Bronx in the hopes of catching someone slipping might at last pay off in one big bust of one seriously massive score.

Regardless of what he said about the film’s intent in the years prior to his death in 2023 (and he said so very much), Friedkin does not celebrate Doyle. We’re attracted to Doyle because Hackman can be a magnetic a-hole, but he’s an avowed racist (whether or not you watch the original theatrical cut with his use of the n-word) who flouts due process. We want him to take down Charnier (Fernando Rey) if only to justify this extrajudicial mayhem. Charnier is a bigger threat to the community than the NYPD, right? Right?

“The French Connection” is a rough film, but it’s not particularly bloody. There’s one brief, hardly scandalous shot of a woman’s derriere. So why the R-rating? That’s because Friedkin scored another Oscar-history first.

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