Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
One of the authentic pathmarks of the American New Wave, William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) was more New York than any movie anyone had ever seen—more New York than Shadows (1959), more than Rosemary’s Baby (1968), more than Midnight Cowboy (1969). There was something about the way the movie smelled—an unmistakable compound of street coffee, taxi exhaust, East River sulfur, wet wool coats, and sweat. The real-life police procedural structure that makes the thing go down so easily is essentially beside the point—in 1971, you were fucking there, in the alleys and running the stairwells with Gene Hackman’s belligerent punk-cop. Today, and ever since, it’s a time machine of not only a city in its grungy, infamous Lindsay-era glory, but of a time when a movie’s authenticity was its eye candy, and its reason for being.
We’re not so jaded today that the bad-breath immediacy of The French Connection still doesn’t vacuum you in, particularly in the film’s showstopping tour de force car chase, the only substantial chunk shot in Brooklyn. Friedkin shot and cut this chaos so clearly it practically serves as its own map: after a French hood takes a shot at Hackman’s hothead from a rooftop in Gravesend, he boards the elevated B train at Bay 50th Street station, and Hackman grabs someone’s LeMans and follows the train at illegal speeds under the platforms, up Stillwell Avenue, north onto 86th Street and then New Utrecht Avenue. The train doesn’t stop—the assassin makes the driver blow through the stations, after offing a few transit cops—and the LeMans races it across Bensonhurst for some 26 blocks, through a hairy litany of crashes, near-misses, screaming pedestrians, and flat-out outlaw driving, until the runaway train meets another at 62nd Street Station, and crashes. Famously, the Frenchman tries to bail and the wired New York cop finds him on the stairs and simply whacks him in the back.
It doesn’t sound like a helluva journey when you sketch it like that, but Friedkin earned his legacy by making it all both visually crystal clear (unlike action scenes today, you know where everyone is all the time, and that’s why your knuckles whiten) and so uncosmetically real it’s a lightning-fast snapshot of the neighborhood as it bustled, and was disrupted, in 1971. Reportedly, the chase was shot with somewhat lax legal standards; cars sped too fast, civilians got inadvertently involved, crashes that weren’t planned happened anyway, and that was all fine with Friedkin.
From the perspective of a recklessly speeding car chasing an elevated train, through the cage shadows cast by the tracks and girders, the area’s geography does not seem to have changed much—although a glimpse of the still-under-construction Twin Towers elsewhere in the film cuts across the grain, like a lightning strike marks the rings in a tree. Like many neighborhoods in the boroughs, Bensonhurst has waltzed with time—it seems in many ways like the clock has stopped, and at the same time history moves at a canter, never disappearing but instead accumulating on the city like coats of paint.