4.23.2015

From Novel to Film pt. 16: The French Connection



THE NOVEL

(1969)

"It was eleven-forty Saturday night when Egan parked his 1961 maroon Corvair on east 60th Street, and he and Sonny stepped into the nightclub - unaware that they were entering upon an odyssey of intrigue and conspiracy that would obsess them night and day for the next four-and-a-half months and would not end finally for a year and a half." 

The French Connection is a non-fiction account of how two NYPD lieutenants -

 Sonny "Cloudy" Grosso and Edward "Popeye" Egan
- as assisted by agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (since disbanded) stumbled upon a massive conspiracy to import and distribute heroin in mid-60s New York City. It ended with the seizure of over 70 lbs of heroin - a record at that time, though since surpassed - and the dismantling of an international network of heroin distribution that involved Corsican mobsters, New York crime families, the host of a popular variety show on French television, and the CIA.

THE COPS

- Edward "Popeye" Egan is a colorful and aggressive cop who relies on his instincts and his own relentless momentum to make arrests. His tactics work - no other cop in the NYPD has his record of collars - but he's definitely a relic of a different age. Some of what he (and the book) call "instincts" include entrapment, intimidation, and racial profiling. It's one of the eternal paradoxes of the law enforcement enforcer, which is probably why we're forever making movies and TV shows about them. Undoubtedly, though, he was one of a kind and a tireless cop. 

Here he is playing the Captain in the movie (amusingly named Walt Simonson), kicking his screen-self off the case.
- Sonny "Cloudy" Grosso is his partner. His nickname comes from his grim dispostion, in mocking contrast to his Christian name. The good cop to Egan's bad, perhaps, but no less dogged in pursuit of his collar.

THE CROOKS

(L to R) Patsy Fuca, Jacques Angelvin, Tony Fuca, Francois Scaglia
- Pasquale and Tony Fuca: the brothers Little Angie Tuminaro (of the Lucchese crime family) put in charge of heroin distribution in New York City. Pasquale ("Patsy") owned a diner, while his brother owned an auto shop. They used both, plus their father Joseph, to stash the heroin they received from overseas.

Delivered in automobiles, usually via Canada.

- Jean Jehan aka "Frog One," a Corsican heroin smuggler and former French Resistance fighter. 

Images of the guy are hard to find, though here he is posing with his daughter, whose face is blanked out.
Jehan impresses everyone who sees him, especially the detectives, as one cool customer. He was if not the mastermind behind the scheme then one of its un-official Unione Corse overseers, along with:

- Francois Scaglia aka "Frog Two," who goes by the alias "Barbier" once in NYC. Scaglia was known in the Paris underworld as "the Executioner," because he was widely believed to be the most successful contract killer in France.  Among his other schemes was a white slavery ring that he ran with the help of:

- Jean Angelvin, an actor and host of the popular "Paris-Show" on French television. Through his influence on the latter, he would arrange for aspiring starlets to meet with Scaglia, who would then shepherd them to a Beirut nightclub he allegedly owned and eventually sell them to wealthy sheiks throughout the Middle East. Angelvin would receive a cut of the $50k the girl fetched on the Arab market.

Angelvin and Scaglia.
But Scaglia had bigger plans for Angelvin. He offered him beaucoup d'argent to embark for New York City with a newly-purchased Lincoln Continental Mark III, ostensibly to film a program for French television of his driving around the States and providing A Frenchman Abroad-type commentary. The Continental was, of course, loaded with heroin. All Angelvin had to do was courier the car across the ocean and then leave it in a parking garage for a couple of days, then he was free to do with it whatever he wanted.

Angelvin's impatience to use the vehicle proves to be a pivotal break in the case.

Most of the book reads like this:

"Frog One and Frog Two emerged from the side door of Bull and Bear and walked east on 49th Street. Egan and Waters (one of the FBN agents working with Egan and Grosso) stayed with them. Jehan and Barbier turned downtown at Third Avenue. They walked past 42nd street... and 34th. (...) The detectives grew more puzzled; surely any minute something would have to happen. The Frogs would have to make some significant move; who just walks on such a night, with the mercury sinking towards zero, and the wind whipping at a man's body? But Jehan and Barbier went on down Third Avenue, past 23rd Street, to 14th Street. There, finally, without hesitation, they turned right. (...) They had strolled thirty-five blocks, almost two icy miles. Then, they started back uptown. They trudged all the way back up Park to 46th Street, thence west again, past Madison Avenue and Fifth and Sixth until at last (...) with no more than curt nods and a small handshake, the Frenchmen bade each other good night."

You eventually find out the reason why the Frogs walk around like this, but it can be a bit of a slog at times. The book comes with a couple of maps, but I imagine even for native New Yorkers it's easy to get cross-eyed. Map fetishists, though, will be in heaven.

It's an engaging true crime story, and Sonny and Popeye are easy characters to hang it on. I was impressed with their endurance in cracking the case. It seems cut-and-dried from this side of it but must have been a hell of a mystery as it was happening. 

AFTERMATH 

The record amount of heroin seized by the NYPD was eventually stolen from the evidence room by corrupt cops in collusion with the New York crime families and replaced with cornstarch. Amazing. Again, this was the then-largest amount of heroin ever seized in the United States. "400 pounds of heroin and cocaine, much of it seized in the so-called French Connection drug bust in 1962, were spirited out of the police property vault for resale back on the street. By the time the theft was discovered in December 1972, the drugs — then valued at $73 million — had been replaced with flour and cornstarch."

Egan and Grosso both retired from the police force and went Hollywood. Gross was famously a technical advisor on The Godfather and successfully transitioned into a TV producer's career. Egan acted here and there before retiring and moving to Florida. He died in 1995.

Egan, L, in Mike Hammer: Murder Me, Murder You, and Sonny Grosso, R, from an interview on The Godfather Special Edition DVD.
Angelvin was eventually released and returned to France. Not sure what happened to Scaglia, but he was sentenced to life in prison, first in Sing Sing and then Attica.

Jean Jehan was never caught. He somehow slipped out of the dragnet and disappeared, along with the $50k he received from the Fucas for delivering the heroin. He was allegedly later arrested for drug trafficking in Paris, but he was never extradited to the United States. According to the commentary track on the DVD, he died peacefully at his home in Corsica.


After Patsy's arrest, Little Angie tried to have his brother take over operations, but he proved even sloppier than the Fucas. When he was found dead, gangland-execution style, Little Angie voluntarily turned himself in, preferring to take his chances in his prison. He was eventually paroled in the mid-80s.


Finally, this intrigued me as both a critic of the surveillance state and as a huge fan of The Wire:  

"The Narcotics Bureau of the NYPD is the largest counternarcotics unit in the world. One of the few material advantages the bureau has over the comparatively affluent Federal Bureau of Narcotics is the legal wiretap. (...) One of the prime tools of gathering information pertinent to law enforcement and crime prevention, particularly in the murky world of illegal narcotics, is the monitored telephone. Federal law prohibits government agencies from employing this tool; not so New York State."

Rejoice, US government agencies! No longer are you burdened by even the slightest of precautions a liberty-minded people once considered only-too-sensible. And with the War on Drugs, you can even seize suspected (not even convicted!) drug-dealers' property and assets to plug holes in your budget. Vive la République!

THE FILM

(1971)
Considered one of the high points of the American New Wave, William Friedkin's The French Connection was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 5. It won numerous other awards and accolades worldwide and turned Friedkin (briefly but memorably) into an A-list director. 

It differs from the book in some notable ways. The names are all changed (Egan becomes Doyle, Sonny becomes Buddy, Gehan becomes Charnier, Fuca becomes Boca, Scaglia becomes Nicoli and Angelvin becomes Devereux) and two of the film's key sequences (Doyle's pursuit of the elevated train after Nicoli attempts to assassinate him, not to mention said assassination attempt, and Doyle's subsequent shooting Nicoli in the back) and the end (Doyle accidentally shoots a fellow cop and then steps out of frame and we hear but do not see him fire again) are invented wholly for the film. We'll look at each of those in turn, but let's start with:

THE CAST

Gene Hackman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of "Popeye" Doyle. And deservedly so - it was the actor's breakthrough role, and he's had no shortage of other memorable performances in the decades since. It's hard to single out just one example, but the scene where he and Buddy enter the nightclub, and he first espies the Bocas waving suspicious amounts of money around, is great. The camera zooms in on Hackman's face, and a high-pitched whine rises on the soundtrack to approximate alarm bells going off. 

He plays seamlessly off Roy Scheider as his partner:
as well as Fernando Rey as Charnier.

No less memorable is Marcel Bozzuffi as Nicoli:

whom we first meet in another sequence invented for the film, the assassination of this hapless fellow:

Barbara Fuca from the novel - who in the real world would collaborate with Robin Moore on a sequel of sorts entitled Mafia Wife - is turned into Angie Fuca, 

played by Arlene Farber.


PURSUIT

Like the novel, much of the film is occupied with simple (and not-so-simple) pursuit. 


This allows for some fantastic location shooting.


And while this has nothing to do with pursuit, speaking of locations, all the stuff filmed in Marseilles and other parts of France is damn gorgeous:


This leads to the famous car chase, which as most film buffs know, was a) designed to top the chase from Bullitt, b) succeeds at that, and c) was filmed completely illegally and irresponsibly. 


But hell, what a sequence, even if very much could have killed Hackman, Friedman, and countless pedestrians, motorists, and production crew. If you've seen it, you'll never forget it, and if you haven't, you're in for a treat when you do.

The score by Don Ellis (criminally not nominated for an Oscar) is one of the best of the American New Wave, up there with Bernard Herrmann's Taxi Driver and Wendy Carlos' for The Shining. I'm including The Shining as American New Wave, but I don't think anyone would classify Kubrick as an ANW filmmaker.) 

Speaking of New Wave considerations, the end has to be some kind of template for them. Popeye Doyle, so consumed with his pursuit that he has murdered a fellow cop (albeit unintentionally) and goes off-frame to fire a shot (which we learn from Charnier's fate, below, was either at his own shadow or, worse, another officer.) The score rises again, and then we see these postscripts:


Weinstock was a composite character of mob bankers and other dealers created for the film.

Ending things like this after all the viewer has taken in over the course of the film re-enforces a very American-New-Wave-ian sense of futility re: the criminal justice system and those to whom we entrust its working properly. The ends don't seem to justify the means.



FINAL VERDICT: Good reading, great watching, and if the film changes some things from page to screen, it does so with considerable intelligence.

All info in this post taken from the novel, film, and the film's commentary track, as well as whatever sources came up in my googling. (Wikipedia, Chicago Tribune, etc.) It's entirely possible that French-language sources might have more information or even corrections to the aforementioned. If any French-literate readers know of any, please let me know.  

4 comments:

  1. "Rejoice, US government agencies! No longer are you burdened by even the slightest of precautions a liberty-minded people once considered only-too-sensible. And with the War on Drugs, you can even seize suspected (not even convicted!) drug-dealers' property and assets to plug holes in your budget. Vive la République!"

    You know, it is this kind of a problem that I get more and more concerned about the Millennials coming of age with their lack of knowledge of the world and taking their place in a democracy that actually depends on said knowledge in order to work in any profitable way.

    This isn't helped by reading E.D. Hirsch's "Cultural Literacy" but at least such a book gives a good overview of the hurdles citizens face in trying to gain a foothold on a national scene that's just slippery but perhaps dangerously thin.

    The punchline for all this is, lots of kids today, if they see "French Connection", even if they like it, are just going to chuckle to themselves and treat it entirely as "fiction", with little to no bearing or relation to their own problems or liberties.

    ...Sorry if things got off on a tangent.

    ChrisC

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    1. On the bright side, the Supreme Court decision today was a rare step in the right direction, or at least a re-affirming direction. I'll take whatever Bill of Rights win I can get at this point.

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  2. I hope to someday find myself in Poughkeepsie. I will most assuredly pick my feet while there.

    I either didn't know or had forgotten that this was based on a book/real-life-events. All the changes make sense to me; but these days, they'd get blasted to pieces online for being "inaccurate," when it's obvious to anyone with more than a hobo's common sense that accuracy was never a goal.

    Impossible to say enough about the car chase. No point even in talking about it; you just watch it and marvel, and then maybe find yourself disapproving of it all before marveling at it anew.

    Ever seen the sequel? I have not, but I am somewhat curious about it.

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    1. I spent a lot of time in Poughkeepsie from 1996 to 2000. Hardly anyone knew The French Connection, so it became the thing I said for awhile and then just gave up. My old buddy Klum would sometimes ask if I picked my feet when I got back into town, though, so at least the joke/ reference got to exist while it was timely.

      I think what was added to the film expanded the canvas of the real world bust very much for the better. If I were Eddie Egan, I might take issue with the character based on me shooting Nicoli in the back, but he (Egan) never seemed to. He probably endorsed it, actually.

      That car chase is still the best. H.B. Halicki probably at least equaled it in the original Gone in 60 Seconds, and there are probably a handful of ones since the 70s that topped both of those (arguably.) But wherever it ultimately falls, holy shit, the French Connection car chase is so fucking awesome. I'm amazed that everyone lived, given how fast and furious (no pun intended, seriously) the production of it was.

      I never did see the sequel, no. Hackman's and Rey's reprising their roles intrigues me. It's on the list.

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