The French Connection is more about atmosphere than it is about plot or characters or the more traditional features expected in a film. The plot is a thin series of chases and stake-outs and the characters are caricatures. Even the lead Doyle, played by Gene Hackman, is just a slightly more filled-out caricature: he’s a racist but moderately effective cop dedicated to stopping a huge drug deal regardless of anything or anyone else. Instead of delving deeper into his character’s drive or the lives of the criminals involved, the film highlights Doyle’s bleak, obsessive hunt.
The cinematography focuses on the scenery and on long moments of tense tracking as either the police or the criminals keep eyes out for each other, dodge each other, and chase each other indiscriminately. More often than either the action or the plot developing conversations that compose the rest of the film, the camera just shows the scenery. Gritty concrete, foggy cobblestones, and cold, dead roads are the norm. The desolate visuals contribute to the barebones plot and Doyle’s singularly minded focus.
The film work contributes to the atmosphere. It’s shaky and hand-held, even though the film’s date, ’71, means that more stable equipment was easily available. The choice gives the film more realism: the camera moves jerkily when chasing characters and even jostles up and down with the waves while on a boat. During one foot chase scene, it cuts from a jerky shot to a smooth one, as the camera switched from being handheld and on foot to a camera that was still handheld, but was in a car.
Speaking of cars, the film’s iconic car chase was great: it fit the general theme of the film: it showed Doyle’s fixation on catching the drug smugglers; it provided realism through all the vehicles Doyle kept scraping; and it was engagingly high-stakes and fast-paced. The film, overall, was one-note, since its focus was on the feeling of obsession, which naturally pushes all other elements out of the picture. Character development as a result is a non-factor. The French Connection is therefore good at what it does, but might not fully satisfy many people by what it does.