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From Marseilles to Baltimore: The French Connection and TV dramas

As The French Connection gets a new release, its director William Friedkin tells James Mottram how it paved the way for TV dramas from 24 to The Wire

If there's any doubt that William Friedkin's The French Connection has endured, you only have to play this year's most-hyped computer game, Grand Theft Auto IV.

Roughly a third of the way through, gamers are faced with a mission, the Puerto Rican Connection, which emulates the famous chase scene at the heart of Friedkin's thriller. Commandeering a car, just as Gene Hackman's rogue cop "Popeye" Doyle does, you are asked to trail a target, who boards an elevated train, through the streets of Liberty City (the GTA version of New York).

Unsurprisingly, the 73-year-old Friedkin hasn't played the game, let alone completed the mission, but he doesn't seem concerned that the film that launched his career has been ripped off. "Everything is fair game," he smiles. He's probably used to it by now. Thirty-seven years on from the release of The French Connection, its legacy is still very much alive. With its down-and-dirty portrayal of cop work, arguably US television shows such as Hill Street Blues, and more recently The Wire and 24, would not exist without it. Friedkin notes: "Joel Surnow, who created 24, told me he was most influenced by The French Connection."

Despite the film winning five Oscars, including best picture, it's curious that Friedkin, in town to promote the new Blu-ray edition, is surprised by how it has endured. Unlike The Exorcist, the 1973 horror classic with which he followed The French Connection, he never held the picture in high esteem. "We thought we were making a little B picture, a little cops-and-robbers movie. So the fact that it became so celebrated, so memorable, and a standard for the genre – which I realise has been copied over and over again, including its attitudes – was a huge surprise."

At the time, the Chicago-born Friedkin, who began his career with the death row documentary The People vs Paul Crump, was viewed as an art-house director. Looking for a more commercial project, he found it when producer Phil D'Antoni pitched the story of The French Connection to him in a steam room at Paramount Studios. It was based on a real-life case in 1961, where NYPD narcotics cops Eddie "Popeye" Egan and Sonny "Cloudy" Grosso masterminded what was then the largest heroin bust (112lbs) in US history. D'Antoni wanted Friedkin to convey it using the same techniques he deployed in his documentaries.

And that he did, filming on the grim streets of New York in the stark winter of 1970. Lending the picture a grubby but realistic aesthetic, Friedkin attempted to replicate the drug trade in much the same way. With the plot following a smuggled heroin shipment from Marseilles to Manhattan, it was the first time the war on drugs, a theme that has since been picked up in everything from The Wire to Traffic, had been tackled so directly. "What it said at the time was that this was going to be a never-ending battle that law-enforcement could not possibly win," says Friedkin. "There was a so-called war on drugs that governments have long since lost. The French Connection was about the earliest skirmishes in that war."

Yet, according to Friedkin, he never read the book by Robin Moore – a "thick-headed" account of the case, he estimates – on which the film was based. He also hated all the scripts that were offered up. He claims that barely a word of Ernest Tidyman's Oscar-winning script remains and that most of the dialogue was ad-libbed. If Friedkin is to be believed, The French Connection was ripped straight from the streets. Friedkin spent time accompanying cops on the beat to "get a sense of the high-testosterone level that occurs, that they could die at any moment themselves". He was even taken to a junkie-infested shooting gallery, located just streets away from his own Fifth Avenue apartment. "Billy stayed day and night," notes NYPD narcotics agent Randy Jurgensen. "Made the arrests, saw the arrests, saw the process, saw the drugs, helped in the seizure."

That being the case, Friedkin hardly left his pals with a great reputation. If there's one legacy of The French Connection that remains, it's that of the rogue cop. "Popeye" Doyle, as he was renamed, is a racist, violent, hard-drinking womaniser. Most famously, this is shown in one of the early scenes where he and Cloudy (Roy Scheider) enter a bar to shake down the black patrons. "I saw the two actual cops do that many times," says Friedkin. Were they not bothered with this unflinching portrayal? "They didn't mind it. Even black people loved and supported the film, because it was an honest portrayal of the way cops treated people in black neighbourhoods."

According to Friedkin, the film is about the contrast between good and evil: "There is a great deal of goodness in the drug smuggler [played by Fernando Rey] and a great deal of evil in the guy with the badge." Yet with Don Siegel's Dirty Harry also doing the rounds, this film was not the only one to depict flawed cops in 1971. Interestingly, before getting involved with The French Connection, Friedkin came close to directing Dirty Harry, with Frank Sinatra in the title role. Sinatra passed, Friedkin walked and Clint Eastwood was cast. Typically bullish, Friedkin now claims Dirty Harry is not as widely viewed today as his own film. "It didn't win any awards or go into the pantheon of American cinema. It's still around, but I think it's dated more than The French Connection."

While all the people who queued for hours to see the outdoor screening of Dirty Harry in Cannes this year may disagree, Friedkin is more accurate when it comes to comparing The French Connection with 1968's Bullitt. The Steve McQueen thriller, made famous by its car chase through the streets of San Francisco, was also produced by D'Antoni, who implored Friedkin to put a similar hot pursuit in The French Connection. "I don't think the chase is that great," claims Friedkin. "What they did basically was clear out the streets of San Francisco and drive these cars over the hills. There were no people on the streets. I decided I had to put the public in jeopardy."

The film went on to take close to $40m, but more surprisingly beat both Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show to the Oscar for best picture in 1972, while Friedkin also won best director – an award he never repeated, despite being nominated for The Exorcist two years later. Friedkin tried to conjure the same magic again with mixed results in his 1985 cop saga To Live and Die in LA.

Certainly his own legacy is nothing like that of The French Connection, his last film, Bug, receiving an insulting one-screen release in the UK. While Friedkin has found success staging operas, his last outing behind the camera was directing an episode of forensics drama CSI in 2007, after regular star William Petersen – who got his breakthrough on To Live and Die In LA – asked him to do one. "It was fun and successful, so they've asked me to do another one in January," says Friedkin. It seems something of a comedown, working as a hired hand on an episodic cop show, when he was the man that re-wrote the rulebook.

'The French Connection' is on Blu-ray Disc from today