“In retrospect, I was wrong to shoot it that way, but there was no other way to get it done.” That’s how director Billy Friedkin last week summed up his famously hair-raising chase scene in the Oscar-winning 1971 film The French Connection. Friedkin was speaking before a rapt audience at the Directors Guild that had gathered for the 45th anniversary of his storied thriller, and he was candid about the challenge of shooting action scenes in the pre-CGI era. Given budget and time restrictions, the chaotic chase scene could not be not carefully prepped or story-boarded; streets were not cleared nor pedestrians pre-warned, and permissions were not received.

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The skilled stunt driver careened through the streets, accidentally slamming into first one car, then a truck. “I took human life for granted because I wanted the shot,” Friedkin reflects. “I would never do it again.”

Friedkin’s film today is regarded as a classic cop movie based closely on an actual heroin bust, but its director was determined to prevent it from playing like a balky procedural. With two non-stars (at the time) as its leads, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, the film was made for $1.8 million on a 40-day shoot. To fans of chase scenes, Friedkin’s depiction of a car in desperate pursuit of an elevated train surpassed the great contemporary chases in Bullitt and The Italian Job in terms of speed and daring. With bullets flying, cars hurtled through the streets of Brooklyn at 90 miles per hour with first Hackman, then a stunt driver at the wheel.

In his DGA presentation, Friedkin broke down the chase moment-by-moment, detailing why actual pedestrians, not extras, were used in many takes, how passers-by scurried out of the way as cops sped after suspects, guns firing. “No one was hurt but lots of cars were damaged,” the director explained. “And there were close calls.” Friedkin himself shot parts of the chase from the back seat of Hackman’s car.

1971 Academy Awards
Associated Press

In many ways, The French Connection exemplified the cowboy-style filmmaking techniques of ’70s Hollywood filmmakers, who seemed eager to defy the rules. 2oth Century Fox was initially reluctant to hire Friedkin, whose early movies, like Boys In The Band or Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, displayed no special gift for action. When he finally landed the job, Friedkin hoped to cast an established star like Paul Newman as Popeye Doyle. Friedkin and his producer, Phil D’Antoni, who had earlier produced Bullitt, presented a $2 million budget, but the studio cut it by $500,000, thereby rendering the action scenes even more of a challenge. Still, Friedkin was adamant about avoiding the prospect of a static surveillance film.

french-connection-chase
20th Century Fox

“I knew we needed action – two or three good chases,” Friedkin told the DGA audience. “But how many times can you show Hackman and Scheider running after a guy?” Two weeks before the start of production, Friedkin and his producer decided to walk the streets of New York and not stop until they had patched together an exciting chase. In their mind, Hackman, playing an obsessive cop, understood that the bad guy was hiding in an elevated train and he would have to relentlessly follow the train as it sped above him. A creaky elevated line in Brooklyn granted Friedkin last-minute permission to shoot on three weekends but there was no time to deal with police bureaucracy. Extras were hired to serve as passengers on the train but actual pedestrians would be waiting on station platforms, watching the train rush by and witnessing the daring chase on the streets below.

Film and Television

While Friedkin had admired the chases in Bullitt, with cars soaring up and down the steep hills of San Francisco, he was determined to enhance the atmosphere of danger. The streets in Bullitt seemed oddly clear of traffic or pedestrians; Friedkin wanted greater reality, but was alarmed when his stunt car started bouncing off stationary vehicles, forcing his crew to apply emergency repairs to keep the scene (and antos) rolling.

In staging his scene, Friedkin’s subconscious role model was Buster Keaton, whose silent movies were built around daring train chases. “Keaton’s scenes seemed life-threatening,” Friedkin observed. And, of course, neither Keaton nor Friedkin had the present-day luxury of computers and special effects. Neither could retire to the editing room with computer-enhanced footage. They had to rely on what they saw in the streets.

In his DGA presentation, Friedkin reminded his audience he was not defending that style of devil-may- care filmmaking, putting lives at risk to achieve maximum impact. But the demands of ’70s-era filmmaking, with its extraordinary ambitions but limited budgets, produced memorably vivid scenes and performances. In the case of The French Connection, it also resulted in five Oscars including Best Picture.