The car chase was filmed without obtaining the proper permits from the city. Members of the NYPD's tactical force helped control traffic. But most of the control was achieved by the assistant directors with the help of off-duty NYPD officers, many of whom had been involved in the actual case. The assistant directors, under the supervision of Terence A. Donnelly, cleared traffic for approximately five blocks in each direction. Permission was given to literally control the traffic signals on those streets where they ran the chase car. Even so, in many instances, they illegally continued the chase into sections with no traffic control, where they actually had to evade real traffic and pedestrians. Many of the (near) collisions in the movie were therefore real and not planned (with the exception of the near-miss of the lady with the baby carriage, which was carefully rehearsed). A flashing police light was placed on top of the car to warn bystanders. A camera was mounted on the car's bumper for the shots from the car's point-of-view. Hackman did some of the driving but the extremely dangerous stunts were performed by Bill Hickman, with Friedkin filming from the backseat. Friedkin operated the camera himself because the other camera operators were married with children and he was not.
Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman patrolled with Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso for a month to get the feel of the characters. Hackman became disgusted at the sights he saw during this patrol. In one incident he had to help restrain a suspect in the squad car and later worried that he would be sued for impersonating a policeman.
Fernando Rey was cast by mistake; William Friedkin wanted an actor he remembered seeing in Belle de Jour (1967), and the casting director thought it was Fernando Rey - who was hired. Only upon arriving at the airport to meet Rey did Friedkin see that it was not the actor he had been thinking of; he also learned that Rey spoke no French. Once at Rey's hotel (the same one he stays at in the film), Friedkin called the casting director, who realized he had confused Rey's name with that of the correct actor, Francisco Rabal. Friedkin considered firing Rey, but changed his mind once it was learned that Rabal wasn't available and didn't speak any English, either.
Both James Caan and Peter Boyle turned down the role of Popeye Doyle. One of the main reasons Boyle decided not to make the film was the reaction to his work in Joe (1970). Boyle's character there was a bigoted man who went on a violent crime spree, but to Boyle's horror, audiences began cheering on his brutal activities rather than being repulsed by and opposed to them. He feared a similar reception if he played "Popeye" Doyle and thus decided to forego the part.
The car crash during the chase sequence, at the intersection of Stillwell Ave. and 86th St., was unplanned and was included because of its realism. The man whose car was hit had just left his house a few blocks from the intersection to go to work and was unaware that a car chase was being filmed. The producers later paid the bill for the repairs to his car.
According to William Friedkin, the significance of the straw hat being tossed onto the shelf of the rear window in Doyle and Russo's car was that at that time it was a universal signal in New York City that the undercover cops in the car were on duty.
In the film, Popeye, Cloudy, and BNDD (Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, forerunner of the DEA) Agent Bill Mulderig stake out Chanier's Lincoln Continental (the case's "dirty" car) after seeing Sal Boca drive it to a side street; the stakeout lasts until 4:10 AM the next morning. In the actual French Connection case the stakeout of Frog One's car lasted three days.
The scene where Doyle and Russo chase down the dealer near the beginning and Gene Hackman shouts out his famous question "Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" is based on actual "good cop/bad cop" interrogations by the real "French Connection" detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso according to William Friedkin in the DVD commentary. Grosso would gingerly ask a suspect direct questions about his crimes, then Egan would always butt in and yell unusual questions like the Poughkeepsie one. The suspect would get so rattled by Egan's offbeat questioning that he felt more comfortable answering Grosso's, thus, tending to eventually incriminate himself.
The French license plate on the 1971 Lincoln Mk III used to smuggle the heroin is 18 LU 13. The real life "French Connection" car, a 1960 Buick Invicta, had French plate 18 LU 75. According to Robin Moore, the Invicta was popular with drug smugglers in the early 1960s because it had a large space under the body behind each front wheel well. Most of the heroin was hidden in these spaces in the French Connection car, but some was hidden under the rocker panels, as depicted in the film.
Having participated in the making of this film, detective Eddie Egan decided to retire from NYPD and start a career in Hollywood. The NYPD, however, brought charges against him for minor errors in reporting and handling of evidence. In Egan's trial director William Friedkin testified on his behalf and Roy Scheider was also present. Egan was dismissed from the police force just hours before his retirement, and his pension was taken away. The decision was later appealed in court and reversed.
Al Copeland named his restaurant chain, Popeye's Mighty Good Fried Chicken, after Popeye Doyle, Gene Hackman's character in the film The French Connection (1971). The chain that grew from the one restaurant became Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken.
The early scene where Doyle and Russo chase down a drug dealer with Doyle dressed in a Santa Claus suit is based on a real-life tactic used by Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. While on stakeouts in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Egan and Grosso discovered that drug dealers could easily spot undercover cops, and would often flee the scene before the cops could arrest them. One Christmas, Egan came up with the idea of dressing in a Santa Claus suit, figuring that drug dealers would never suspect Santa Claus of being a cop. As depicted in the film, Egan walked the neighborhood streets as Santa Claus, singing Christmas carols with local kids. When he saw a drug deal going down, Egan sang "Jingle Bells" as a signal to his partners to move in and make the arrest. The tactic worked beautifully, and Egan and his partners made dozens of Christmas arrests over several years.
According to William Friedkin on his DVD commentary, the scene where Weinstock's chemist tests the heroin's purity uses actual heroin, and not flour or cornstarch or some other commonly used substitute.
According to director William Friedkin, Peter Boyle was originally offered the role of "Popeye" Doyle but turned it down due to his preference for more romantic roles. Legendary New York City newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin was then hired to play "Popeye" Doyle, and completed three weeks of rehearsals with co-star Roy Scheider before Friedkin decided to recast the role. Breslin's inability to drive was one of the main reasons for his dismissal.
The conductor on the subway train was the actual conductor, whose name was Bob Morrone. The actor who was supposed to play the conductor didn't show up on the day that scene was to be filmed. In addition, the motorman was the actual motorman. The Transit Authority refused to allow an actor to operate a subway train.
The chase sequence takes place beneath the West End subway line, whose proper letter marking in 1971 was a B (as of 2004, D). When equipment for the movie was chosen, the producers insisted on clean cars, and the only available clean cars were normally assigned to the N line and did not have B signs. Consequently, they operated during the movie with an N displayed in the front slot.
The sequence on the Times Square-Grand Central shuttle took two full days to shoot (without permission from the Transit Authority), even though it lasts for only a few minutes on screen. Car 6609, an R-17, is preserved at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn. A different trainset was apparently substituted between the time filming of that scene began and ended because the car numbers are not the same when Fernando Rey finally outwits Gene Hackman and leaves him behind at the station.
The principal car chase scene was widely considered to be the best ever put on film at the time, overtaking Bullitt (1968) for that honor. William Friedkin later attempted to outdo himself with a chase sequence in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985).
William Friedkin has said the chase scene wasn't fully scripted, but largely conceived while they were doing location scouting. It was almost completely improvised and shot entirely out of sequence, over a period of five weeks. It did not involve solid day-to-day shooting, and all of the shooting was confined between the hours of 10am- 3pm. One reason was that they were given permission to use only one particular Brooklyn line, the Stillwell Avenue, running from Coney Island into Manhattan (the West End line). The entire chase was shot with an Arriflex camera, as was most of the picture. One brief shot, where Doyle's car slams into the fence, was filmed in Ridgewood under the Myrtle Ave., or M, line.
An article quoted some of the performers as admitting that they pretty much ignored the dialog in the script and used terms and phrases the police advisers gave to them during rehearsals. Ironically, the screenplay won an Oscar. (Note: Owen Roizman, the film's cinematographer, maintains that the dialog in the finished film is almost exactly the same as that in the screenplay he read during production).
First originally R-rated movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, Midnight Cowboy (1969), which was originally rated X, has since been downgraded to an R-rating, technically making it the first R-rated Best Picture winner.
Detective Eddie Egan wanted his catchphrase in the film to be "Addicts in the cellar, sellers in the attic." Director William Friedkin eschewed this line, preferring the more enigmatic phrase, "Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?"
Interviewed for BBC Radio 4's Film Programme Nov 2008, William Friedkin said that Paul Newman was another top choice of his to play Popeye Doyle, but producers had said that he was well out of their budget.
The R42 featured in the chase scene (4572) is currently running on services based out of Jamaica Yard (as of March 2009). This car, along with its mate (4573) are set to be preserved in the New York Transit Museum. The fleet is currently being decommissioned due to age.
The lead role was also offered to Lee Marvin, but he rejected it because he didn't like cops. Interestingly, Marvin made his name playing a tough cop in M Squad (1957) and soldiers in Attack (1956) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). He explained that he always made it a point to display some sort of conflict between his character and the military or the police, even though he would be a part of it. He felt that this was not possible with The French Connection (1971), and therefore could not get himself to accept the part.
William Friedkin was able to make the movie because Fox's chairman, Darryl F. Zanuck, off-handedly said he had $2 million on hand and would OK a production start if Friedkin and his production team could make the movie for that much. Zanuck also warned Friedkin that if done badly, he'd end up with another episode of the TV series Naked City (1958). Friedkin said later that this inspired him to make the Popeye Doyle character a combination of good and evil, because that duality was not something one saw on "Naked City". The director also credited the film Z (1969) with introducing a near-documentary quality that he applied to own his fictional project.
The first R-rated film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, in 1971. Midnight Cowboy (1969) had an X rating when it won Best Picture in 1969, although it was later reclassified (and remains at present) an R-rated film. Between the dawn of the modern MPAA ratings system and 1971, the other Best Picture winners were rated G (Oliver! (1968)) or PG (Patton (1970)).
The 4-door blue Ford LTD driven by the suspect has actual NY license plates 9620-WM (not a movie prop) complete with proper expiration and safety inspection stickers on the windshield. This car was registered in Westchester County just north of New York City. In the film, this car is under surveillance by detectives riding in the slightly older blue undercover Ford sedan with a straw hat on the back shelf.
To save money on the budget and also because they didn't always have permits, William Friedkin had the cameraman carted around in a wheelchair instead of using a camera mounted on dolly tracks for the moving shots. This is most noticeable in the scene where Gene Hackman runs to then enters the subway car. As the camera follows Hackman hurrying towards the car the film movement is smooth but then shakes noticeably as the cameraman has to get up from the wheelchair and follow Hackman into the subway car.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
According to William Friedkin in the DVD commentary, a lot of police officers objected to the scene in which Doyle shoots Nicoli in the back to end the chase. However, the real "Popeye" Doyle, Eddie Egan, was on set and gave Friedkin his approval. When the movie was screened for an audience, the scene even received a standing ovation, so a still photo of the shot was used in advertisements of the movie.
At the end of the film a superimposed caption informs us that Popeye and Cloudy were transferred out of Narcotics and reassigned. Eddie Egan was always upset that the film thus implied that this happened to himself and Sonny Grosso after the French Connection; in reality the two cops were split up four years and two similarly large narcotic cases later.
Irving Abrahams, who plays Irv the police mechanic, was the real-life NYPD mechanic who helped Egan and Grosso crack the "French Connection" case. As depicted in the film, Abrahams helped Egan and Grosso tear apart the car that French smugglers were using to sneak heroin into the U.S. When the movie was made, Sonny Grosso arranged with William Friedkin for Abrahams to play himself in the garage scene.