This month’s Great Character theme: Cops. Today: Jason Cuthbert’s guest post features Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle from the 1971 movie The French Connection, screenplay by Ernest Tidyman, based on the book by Robin Moore.
The year of 1971 was a huge calendar for screenwriter Ernest Tidyman. This New York Times editor saw his novel
Shaft get adapted by himself and John D. F. Black into the Gordon Parks-directed street savvy cinematic private eye staple Shaft. Then roughly 3 months later, Tidyman contributed to another red carpet being ready to be walked across with the release of another script that he wrote – The French Connection. This would become the second edgy New York City crime buster that Ernest Tidyman would concoct, based on a Robin Moore novel and with uncredited script work from the legendary director Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo). The French Connection is based on real life cops Edie “Popeye” Egan (Jimmy “Popeye Doyle) and his partner Sonny Grosso (Buddy “Cloudy” Russo) who actually lived the movie’s plot by seizing a record-breaking 112 pounds of heroin in 1961.
With William Friedkin (The Exorcist) directing and Gene Hackman (Unforgiven) starring as the relentless and unorthodox cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, The French Connection would go on to win an utterly stunning five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Gene Hackman and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for Ernest Tidyman.
The French Connection plot summary from IMDB:
A pair of NYC cops in the Narcotics Bureau stumble onto a drug smuggling job with a French connection.
How does one turn a badge-flashing alcoholic bigot into an unforgettable cinematic anti-hero protagonist? One way is by not lingering too long on his prejudices by spreading them evenly across the board. Knowing that Doyle doesn’t have any particular affinity for any ethnic group or nationality whatsoever makes his behavior even more unpredictable and reckless, considering that his “serve and protect” zone is America’s most diverse melting pot – New York City.
JIMMY “POPEYE” DOYLE: Never trust anyone!
A drinking problem and a flammable temper are a chaotic mixture when you have been hired to make civil judgment calls while on duty to prevent crime. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle is usually more brutal and uptight than the sketchy suspects that he is forcing his presence upon. The Popeye strategy is basically intimidation until proven innocent.
JIMMY “POPEYE” DOYLE: All right! You put a shiv in my partner. You know what that means? Goddammit! All winter long I got to listen to him gripe about his bowling scores. Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.
Even after Doyle gets the information that he needs while on a case, he still doesn’t retreat back to the role of a polite fellow human being. He keeps his abrasive disrespectful demeanor on full blast for what seems like the sole purpose of keeping everyone around, even innocent bystanders, in a constant state of fear.
JIMMY “POPEYE” DOYLE: [to a random woman before he exits the bar after the drug raid] Get that hair done before Saturday. We’re going now. Goodbye!
Popeye’s strength does not come from a strict diet of spinach like his cartoon counterpart. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle gets off on the visceral sizzle of his instincts and hunches – no matter how insane they appear or regardless of whom they may hurt. His police mentality never takes a vacation, even when he is off the clock at a bar.
You can see the crack addict level adrenaline rush that Doyle’s heart naturally becomes fueled by when he feels he is onto breaking a lawbreaker. Privacy, personal space, pleasantries and even the law itself don’t seem to come to mind when a “Popeye Moment” is triggered. A single random clue could provoke him, or maybe even an extended stretch of sobriety. Either way, when Doyle is onto something, fear is out the window. This is not “Officer Friendly,” this is a man that has literally become his job, to the point that he is now a cracked mirror reflection of its scariest risks.
If you are still unconvinced as to the life or death lengths that Doyle will test the limits of mortality to crack a case, look no further then the famous six minute car chase sequence that has Popeye snatching a civilian’s vehicle than breaking speed limits to the tune of the 100 miles-per-hour variety to catch a culprit on a subway train. The singularity with which Doyle operates does not earn love letters from everyone in his department, and arguably leads to an accidental homicide of an FBI agent. Like it or not, Popeye is only hardwired to win, and the meaning of losing has been redefinined by himself personally.
For his unwavering commitment to his instincts, almost selfless desire to risk his life on the job and for actually getting the Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits restaurant franchise named after him – Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle is one GREAT CHARACTER.
Any fans of The French Connection out there? See you in comments to discuss.
Thanks to Jason (@A2Jason) for another great analysis.