Corrupt and sleazy screen cops have come and gone, but Gene Hackman’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle came to stay. If Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” (1971) mastered stewing and vengeful and Al Pacino’s “Serpico” (1973) nailed hip and martyred, Hackman was all lather. With nice-guy partner Russo (Roy Scheider) and goading bad guy Chartrie (Fernando Rey) as foils, he transformed the blunt and broken down cop caricature into a muddy hero.
NYPD narcotics detectives Doyle and Russo make a heroin bust after what seems like a routine stakeout. But oddities and inconsistencies suggest a more sinister picture. Director William Friedkin opens his thriller in Marseilles, where the murderous Chartier makes a set-piece appearance, only to switch the focus to the seemingly hapless “Popeye” on his stakeout while disguised as Santa Claus. It’s a perfect intro into the scruffy American big city of the 1970s. Cars make the difference. There’s classic chase and a winner-take-all stripdown.
Doyle is as preternaturally antisocial as the slick Chartier is polite, oiling the cat and mouse game. Doyle’s unorthodox methods roil higher-ups and put him on the wrong side of right, another plot lubricant. As with many crime thrillers of the period, this one was based on a true story, with Freidkin briefly getting cameos from NYPD detectives Eddie Egan and Buddy Russo. Friedkin and Hackman won deserved Oscars.