Filmmaking at 90 Miles Per Hour
by Dave Kehr
New York Times
Mr. Friedkin was a rising young filmmaker with four features (his unlikely debut was the 1967 Sonny and Cher vehicle, “Good Times”) and several documentaries to his credit when the producer Philip D’Antoni approached him about “The French Connection.” The story, essentially true, was derived from a book by Robin Moore that described how two narcotics detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, broke up a drug smuggling ring in the early 1960s, resulting in a record seizure: 120 pounds of heroin, worth more than $32 million.
“We felt, at the time, that the story had everything for a great police thriller except for one thing, and that was a great action scene,” Mr. Friedkin said. “Because it was mostly about an investigation that took place between 1960 and 1962, it was mostly listening in on wiretaps, following guys. There was no action. It was all police work.”
As the producer of “Bullitt” (1968), with its famous car chase through San Francisco, Mr. D’Antoni knew something about the importance of action. Joining Mr. Friedkin in Brooklyn for the DVD shoot, Mr. D’Antoni reminded him about a brainstorming session: “I remember meeting you at your apartment, and we went for a walk, maybe 50 blocks. And somewhere along the line an elevated train went by. You said, what about doing this? We got so excited we raced back to Ernest Tidyman, who was our screenwriter, and page by page we gave him our version of what the chase would be like. Later, when you shot it, it was changed three times again.”
The concept evolved into a parallel setup: as the sniper commandeered a train on the tracks above, forcing the motorman to drive at top speed, Popeye would hijack a passing car on the avenue below, and try to head the train off at the next station.
The car was driven by Bill Hickman, a veteran stunt coordinator who died in 1986. “Bill Hickman drove the car at 90 miles an hour,” Mr. Friedkin recalled. “I was in the back seat holding a camera over his shoulder, focused on the street ahead. There was a camera in the front seat looking out the window, and another one on the front bumper. The reason I handled the camera was because the camera operator and the director of photography both had families with children, and I didn’t.”
Riding in the shotgun seat was Randy Jurgensen, a police officer moonlighting as a technical advisor for the film. (Later Mr. Friedkin would base “Cruising” on one of Mr. Jurgensen’s cases.)
“We took off, with Billy telling Bill Hickman, ‘Give it to me, come on, you can do it, show me!’ ” Mr. Jurgensen said in an interview. “We had a police siren on top that people could hear, so that those who were able to get out of the way, could.”
There were no permits and no planning — just sheer nerve. “After 26 blocks, from Bay 50th to Bay 24th Street, I ran out of film, but I knew I had enough,” Mr. Friedkin said. “The fact that we never hurt anybody in the chase run, the way it was poised for disaster, this was a gift from the Movie God. Everything happened on the fly. We would never do this again. Nor should it ever be attempted in that way again.”
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