Today, William Friedken’s 1971 Academy Award winner seems like better-than-standard cop fare, but this is an extremely influential film, notable for its verisimilitude, grit and movement. Shot on the mean streets and ugly haunts of decrepit New York City, Friedken follows two detectives, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), as they try and take down a huge heroin shipment. No prior American film seemed as authentic, immediate or aggressive. Friedken’s camerawork is frenetic and edgy, and his virtuouso car chase scene is still one of the best in all of film. Here is Friedken on the chase, which took 2 weeks to shoot.
Friedken’s insistence on visual authenticity extends to Ernest Tidyman’s script. Doyle is a casual racist and a simplistic bully, Scheider a slightly more pleasant accomplice. They are neither archetypes or anti-heroes. They’re just dogged, unremarkable cops. What is a little mystifying is the Best Actor win and Best Supporting Actor nomination for, respectively, Hackman and Scheider. These performances are almost 100% sweat, the equivalent of thespian calisthenics. There is no arc or development, and I don’t believe there has been this much running in any film save for Chariots of Fire, The Gods Must Be Crazy and any film about Steve Prefontaine. Roger Ebert disagrees about Hackman’s performance, writing: “As Popeye Doyle, he generated an almost frightening single-mindedness, a cold determination to win at all costs, which elevated the stakes in the story from a simple police cat-and-mouse chase into the acting-out of Popeye’s pathology.”
Interestingly, Friedken didn’t want Hackman (they fought constantly and as Friedken writes in his memoir, “His outbursts [onscreen] were aimed directly at me… more than the drug smugglers”). But Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were too pricey, Peter Boyle objected to the film’s violence and Friedken’s first choice – Jackie Gleason! – was deemed unsuitable by the studio.