Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, rough but dedicated NYPD narcotics detective
Brooklyn, December 1970
Film: The French Connection
Release Date: October 9, 1971
Director: William Friedkin
Costume Designer: Joseph Fretwell III
Car chases have been engrained in American cinema since the early days of the Keystone Kops. As the interest in cars grew, auto manufacturers began highlighting their most innovative products through on-screen action. The James Bond franchise innovated the use of car chases with Goldfinger‘s gadget-laden Aston Martin DB5 and a conveniently placed Ford Mustang convertible. The Mustang poked its head out again for the seminal chase in Bullitt as Steve McQueen faced off against a black ’68 Dodge Charger in his Mustang GT-390. After Bullitt, filmmakers began exploring the possibilities of cars on film. New, exciting cars were showcased like the new Dodge Challenger in Vanishing Point to the new Mustang Mach 1 in Diamonds are Forever.
For The French Connection, William Friedkin’s 1971 film based on Robin Moore’s book about intrepid NYPD cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, the car chase formula was injected with something new. Rather than the super-cool hero coolly chasing a villain in his super-cool car, the film places its ragged protagonist off-duty cop in an ordinary sedan commandeered from a civilian. Not only that, but this villain isn’t in a car; rather, he has hijacked an elevated train as Popeye is forced to race the train to each stop.
The chase isn’t a smooth series of stunts and jumps but rather a realistic depiction of what would happen if a determined detective really would borrow a car and attempt to take down his target during a busy day in Brooklyn.
What’d He Wear?
As Popeye is off-duty when he’s called into action, he’s dressed much more casually than usual. Rather than one of his usual rumpled brown suits and loosened skinny tie, he’s wearing a very unique winter coat with smartly-chosen layers to keep himself warm.
Popeye’s jacket is a heavy wool tweed hip-length coat styled similarly to a reefer jacket or pea coat albeit with a distinctive 8×4 loop-button duffel front rather than the traditional plastic anchor buttons. Like a pea coat, the heavyweight material keeps him warm but the short length and double rear vents allow for a greater range of movement if needed. (Despite this, he still manages to tear it just below the right armpit.)
The color is a very ’70s blend of brown and gray with drab and rust-colored accent stripes. Edge stitching is present throughout.
The jacket closes on the torso with four dark leather “cluster” buttons on the right side hooked through a loop extending from its matching button on the left. The left side buttons are non-functional, serving only to provide a cleaner, symmetrical look.
The top button is just under his shirt-style collar, the second button is at his chest, the third across his abdomen, and the lowest button is at his waist. Until the end of the chase, Popeye keeps only the lower two buttons fastened. The two hip pocket flaps are directly in line with the lowest button. There is also a flapped ticket pocket just above the right hip pocket.
Each cuff of the jacket has a half-tab that is kept closed on a matching “cluster” button.
It must have been a cold day in Brooklyn because Popeye also layers two warm shirts underneath. The outer flannel long-sleeve shirt is brown and tan plaid with black plastic buttons down a front placket. The patch pockets on the chest close with a single button through each pointed flap. He keeps his rounded cuffs buttoned.
Underneath the flannel shirt, Popeye wears a white thermal long-sleeve t-shirt with elasticized cuffs and the standard waffle knit.
Popeye’s trousers are a dark “olive charcoal” that appears a greenish tint of gray. They are heavy wool, possibly flannel, with cuffed bottoms. Very little is seen of the top of the trousers as the jacket covers the waistband most of the time, but they are likely flat front with belt loops. His belt, glimpsed above as he approaches the steps to take the fatal shot at Pierre Nicoli, is dark brown leather with a square silver buckle.
Popeye wears a pair of light brown suede 2-eyelet chukka boots with brown leather trim. This type of shoe, sans the leather, was made popular by another car chase hero when Steve McQueen donned them for the central chase in Bullitt. Popeye continues the leg line from his trousers into his shoes with a pair of ribbed charcoal gray socks.
As one would expect, the no-frills detective wears only the accessories he needs: a wristwatch and a holster. Popeye’s watch doesn’t get much exposure in this scene, but it’s definitely the same plain gold Timex Marlin watch with a white dial that he wears throughout The French Connection. Popeye keeps his snub-nosed .38 Special service revolver in a brown leather ankle holster strapped to the outside of his right ankle.
Go Big or Go Home
The French Connection presents a nice balance of Popeye’s traits working both for him and against him. He is undeniably a relentless, determined detective, but his impulsive behavior suits him better when off the job. As soon as Nicoli’s rifle bullets start to strike, Popeye takes immediate cover behind a tree and shouts to clear the area. It’s not easy for him, and Hackman nicely portrays the desperate stress of a man in that situation.
Once he’s got a gun in hand – more on that later – Popeye takes off to quell the threat. He determine the source of the gunfire on the roof of his building and gets to the top only to discover a discarded rifle. Taking chase, he tracks Nicoli down to the elevated train. With each missed chance, his desperation grows, feeding his adrenaline before he leaps into a woman’s Pontiac sedan. This pursuit isn’t easy for him; not only does he need to focus on the train, but Stillwell Avenue’s got a hell of a lot of traffic in front of him to avoid!
(If you’re looking for the right music for a drive in your LeMans, director William Friedkin said that he used Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” to create the rhythm while editing the chase together.)
Finally, Popeye gets his chance when the train crashes at the end of the line. Dog-tired but more determined than ever, he finds Nicoli running down to make his escape. Nicoli turns to run, and Popeye ensures that no more lives will be endangered with a shot to Nicoli’s back.
During most of the film, Popeye’s revolver is the standard Colt Detective Special, seen in almost every gangster or cop movie since Prohibition. When he takes his shot at Nicoli, a continuity error turns his piece into the similar-looking but different Smith & Wesson Model 36 “Chief’s Special”. Both are 2″ snub-nosed revolvers with blued frames and brown wooden grips, but the Colt carries six rounds of .38 Special while the S&W only carries five.
How to Get the Look
Popeye dresses for comfort first, warmth second, and fashion third and last. Despite his sartorial apathy, he still displays a strong masculine sense of style for an afternoon of leaping in and out of cars and train stations.
- Brownish gray tweed duffel-front reefer jacket with 8-on-4 button stance, flapped hip pockets and ticket pocket, 1-button tab cuffs, and double rear vents
- Brown-and-tan plaid flannel long-sleeve shirt with button-flapped chest pockets and button cuffs
- White waffle-knit thermal long-sleeve t-shirt
- Dark olive charcoal wool flat front trousers with belt loops and turn-ups/cuffs
- Dark brown leather belt with large squared silver-toned clasp
- Light brown suede 2-eyelet chukka boots with brown leather trim
- Charcoal gray ribbed socks
- Gold wristwatch with thin bracelet and white face
- Brown leather RHD ankle holster, for 2″-barreled .38 revolver
When Popeye takes chase against Nicoli in the elevated train, he commandeers the first car he can, a brown 1971 Pontiac LeMans hardtop sedan.
Previously only a trim level for the Tempest nameplate, the Pontiac LeMans was offered in a variety of body styles from a convertible to a station wagon. Engine offerings were also varied from the 250 cubic inch six-cylinder to the big 455 “High Output” V8, transferred from the GTO and rated at 335 horsepower.
Considering these options, a likely candidate for the strong performer driven by Hackman (and his stunt driver, the similarly-named actor and Bullitt alum Bill Hickman) is the 400 Pontiac V8 engine, which would be rebranded as the 6.6 L during the decade as metric measurements began to overtake imperial.
Body Style: 4-door sedan
Engine: 400 cu. in. (6.6 L) Pontiac V8
Power: 300 hp (220 kW; 304 PS) @ 4800 rpm
Torque: 400 lb·ft (542 N·m) @ 3600 rpm
Transmission: 3-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 112 inches (2845 mm)
Length: 206.8 inches (5253 mm)
Width: 76.9 inches (1953 mm)
Height: 54 inches (1372 mm)
Although The French Connection didn’t have a permit to film the car chase, Egan and Grosso – serving as the film’s advisors – were on hand to pull strings and get support from both the NYPD and MTA.
The chase begins as Nicoli boards the B-train (now the D-train) of the BMT West End Line at the Bay 50th Street Station in Bensonhurst. Once Popeye “borrows” the LeMans (with New York license plates 4N-2684), he follows the line through Brooklyn until the train hits a stop north of the 62nd Street station.
Although Friedkin’s four major planned stunts were performed excellently – the intersection sideswipe, the Drive Carefully truck, the garbage crash to avoid the mother, and the fence crash – the scene received an additional and authentic boost when a Brooklynite accidentally drove onto the scene and was hit by the LeMans. The driver was safe and Friedkin kept this crash in his final cut of the film.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
This wraps up another successful Car Week, which had much more of a ’70s focus than usual.
The French Connection and films like it do leave a major question out there: does a policeman have permission to flash a badge and commandeer a car for pursuit as seen so frequently in movies and TV shows? While each department and agency naturally has its own set of governance, The Straight Dope has analyzed the question and determined that – in short – yes, the average police officer can commandeer a civilian car without the department having to pay for damages (although most police departments would pay for damages because they’re good guys!) Perhaps someone involved in law enforcement could sort this out…