Bad Cop with a Good Focus
Popeye Doyle is unethical and unscrupulous, but at least his fixation is in the right place.
American Film Institutes Ranking: #70/100
Awards: Nominated for eight, winning Best Picture, Actor, Director and Adapted Screenplay.
The movie is a sprint interspersed with a few jogs to slightly catch our breath.
This rapid pace doesn’t allow us to get to know anyone or anything — the driving force behind all the characters is a complete enigma to us. This had the potential to detract more from the movie than it did if it weren’t so gripping due to acting and action.
[story w/ spoilers.] Popeye (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy (Roy Scheider) are two detectives on the narcotics beat. After seeing a drug deal take place, they chase the guy down and rough him up — telling you how they operate. They go to a bar that night to unwind, but Popeye can’t let his detective eye go: he sees a couple at a far table entertaining a mob crew, and he convinces Cloudy to tail them. Unraveling what the couple, Sal Boca and Angie, have been up to leads to all sorts of connections with the narcotics underworld, in particular Chanier — a drug lord from France.
What follows is a dark movie showing deceitful police work, mostly by Popeye, to get the information that’s needed. The movie is best known for its car chase scene where Popeye trails an elevated train to keep up with one of Chanier’s henchman.
The scene is exemplary of the entire film: fast, tense, and above all, and disregard for the well being of anyone. After Popeye got a hint of a drug deal in the beginning of the movie, he becomes 100% fixated thereafter, using every fiber of his being to intercept it. He puts himself, his partners, and the public at risk.
This makes him a likable anti-hero. His only saving grace is that his obsession is catching narcotic dealers instead of something nefarious. But, we could easily see where Popeye could turn to the dark side in a second if it furthered his own personal goals. This happens at the end of the movie: in trying to shoot down Chanier the drug lord, he accidentally shoots and kills a fellow agent. While his partner Cloudy is distraught, Popeye continues to search for Chanier as if nothing happened; it doesn’t even register.
This solidifies who we already thought Popeye was: a selfish cop that will do anything to get a bust. He’s completely dangerous and unhinged, as dirty as the people he pursues. Unfortunately, we never really understand the why. This movie stays true to an external third-person narrative, never showing inner thoughts of characters or giving clues to motive. Quite frankly, there would not be any space to do so with how this movie is paced.
The end of the movie is the perfect resolution for such a tense and dark film: all for naught. Sal Boca and Angie serve reduced sentences. Chanier is never caught. Popeye and Cloudy are reassigned. All the sleepless nights, lives at risk, deaths tolled, tiring chases, and nightmares lead to zero. Though if we have learned anything about Popeye, that won’t slow him down when his next compulsion hits.