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The True Story Behind the Car Chase Sequence in "The French Connection"
“We only had permission to shoot on the elevated train,” explained William Friedkin, director of “The French Connection.” He and his producer met with the head of public relations for the New York Transit Authority. They explained to him what they wanted to do and asked permission to do it. “You’re crazy”, admonished the officer, “I could never let you do what you just described. First of all: there’s never been an elevated train hijacking, there’s never been a train accident here. The elevated system in New York, and We’ve never had a car chasing a train. It would be really difficult.” The director and production manager got up to leave. Fortunately, the manufacturer was prudent enough to anticipate the situation New York transit officials were referring to. “How difficult?”, asked the producer knowingly. The officer’s reaction was the first step towards making the greatest car chase filmed in motion picture history; A sequence that was so daring in its execution that it could never be legally performed again. “$40,000 and a one-way trip to Jamaica”, he responded. He was serious and that’s why the production paid him. However, according to Friedkin, the film was not originally allocated a $40,000 pay-off. The budget for the entire film was around $1.5 million, and the film would go over $300,000; Because of bribery as just described. Friedkin convinced the studio that this was the way to do it. He asked the man why he wanted a “one-way ticket” in particular. “Because”, confirmed the transit official, “if I let you do what you told me to do on that train, I will be fired. I want to live the rest of my life in Jamaica.” And so he did; Happily ever after.
“The French Connection” is based on a true drug case in New York City. Real-life detective Sonny Grosso and his partner Eddie Egan (the inspiration for Gene Hackman’s Poppy Doyle character) busted an organized crime ring in 1961 and seized 112 pounds of heroin, a record amount at the time. The investigation was the subject of a book by Robin Moore and an Academy Award-winning motion picture. For legal reasons, the names of Egan and Grosso were changed to Doyle and Russo. Despite the name change, however, Sonny Grosso has said the film is a 95 percent accurate depiction of the events of the 10-month investigation. The only incident that actually happened in this episode was the car chase scene in “The French Connection”.
William Friedkin felt he needed to do the car chase or else he would have nothing but “police surveillance footage.” Friedkin adds that “police surveillance is like watching paint dry. It’s very boring.” He knew the film needed the scene, but weeks before principal photography began, he didn’t know what the car chase scene from “The French Connection” would be. One day, he and his producer decided to take a walk on Manhattan’s East 86th Street. They walked 55 blocks south. “We’re not going to stop, we’re not going to turn around until we can think of a chase scene,” Friedkin recalled of the two making the decision. They heard the rumble of subways under their feet, saw smoke billowing from the streets. He saw the traffic and the crowds of people who make up New York. “We started improving the chase.” This scene spawned what would, of course, become the film’s signature sequence.
Gene Hickman’s stunt driver was named Bill Hickman. He was also the driver in “Bullitt” starring Steve McQueen. Steve McQueen is said to have been the original choice for the role of Gene Hackman, inevitably in “The French Connection”. Both “Bullitt” and “The French Connection” were produced by Philippe D’Antoni. The car chase in “Bullitt” (which took place just 3 years before “The French Connection” and is still very memorable) is what convinced me how exciting the car chase scenes in “The French Connection” needed to be. . Eventually they’ll be sure to top Steve McQueen’s car-chasing-a-car with Gene Hackman’s car-chasing-an-elevated-train.
According to the director, he did not storyboard the chase. “I didn’t write it down”, insists Friedkin. “It wasn’t in any of the scripts. But we went to different places. There’s a guy named Fat Thomas who gets credit as the location manager. Fat Thomas was a 425-pound bookie from New York who was arrested 52 times for bookmaking. One conviction. But he was in New York. He knew like the back of his hand. He turned me around and showed me that I had permission to film the chase.” The neighborhood was Stilwell Avenue line Bay 50th Street near Coney Island. Friedkin would take the crew to all of these locations for about a week before beginning principal photography and discuss what might happen as they worked out some ideas. “We didn’t have any permission to shoot in pursuit. Nothing. We didn’t have permission to come out of the city on the streets at all. But I had these off-duty cops with me, and so if anything came up, they’d just show a badge. And problems would go away.”
When they finished shooting everything they had planned, the director looked at the crowd and decided that he was dissatisfied with the final results. “I thought it was pretty lame stuff”, admitted Friedkin. One day, when they were done, stunt driver Bill Hickman went to a bar downtown for a drink with the director. The stunt driver turned to Friedkin and asked, “Well boss, what do you think of the chase we did?” The director was forced to admit that he felt it was not very good and was not as exciting as expected. Hickman’s face turned a little red and he responded to the challenge. Next day at 8 am he asked to keep the car under elevated track. “You get in the car with me”, he promised Friedkin, “and I’ll show you how to drive”.
They were planning to shoot somewhere that day but the director approached the production manager and arranged for a camera to be mounted on the bumper. He decided that he would carry the second camera over Bill Hickman’s shoulder because he was “young and single and both cameramen had families.” Bill Hickman then drove 26 blocks through city traffic at 90 mph, with no paid extras and no permit. As a warning to pedestrians, they mounted a police siren on top of the car, which was never photographed. The only thing that happened was the shooting of the woman with the baby carriage.
Actor Randy Jurgensen described what it was like: “The car was completely lowered… and I sat on the passenger side. I was curled up in a mattress and Billy Friedkin was in the back and he was on camera.” Jurgensen described the conversation that happened before the cameras rolled: “Before getting in the car, Billy [Friedkin] Bill spoke to Hickman this way: ‘We only get to do this once, we don’t have protection, we’re lucky if we get out of this without getting arrested, we’re going to steal this shot. , so you should give it to me. You really should give it to me.’ He weaved, we went to the sidewalk once, we ran into oncoming traffic.” The car swiped the city bus slightly in a way that prevented the stunt car doors from opening.
The stunt driver kept his foot on the gas until he hit the brakes and the director kept encouraging him to do more. During the second unit, they were required to shoot some footage of Gene Hackman driving. They had no idea that someone would walk out of their house, get into their car and open fire. “All of a sudden, I see this blur”, Hackman said years later, “and this guy pulls up in front of me.” Hackman hit another driver and the impact sent Hackman directly into a pole. The impact threw the cameraman to the floor of the trunk. Luckily, Hackman and the cameraman were not seriously hurt.
Gerald Greenberg, the film’s editor, recalled: “Billy always wanted something more out there and definitely played against Gene Hackman’s face and the frustration that Hackman was capable of creating. Years later he shot a “car chase scene. The French Connection”, William Friedkin admitted: “It was a terrible thing to do, it was very dangerous and it was fatal. I want to tell you, I will never do anything like that again.”
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