Ask anyone the best car chase scene in cinematic history and they'll likely tell you, without pause, that it's The French Connection. So let's revisit the intense, five-minutes from the 1971 Academy Award-winning classic, which was added to Netflix's streaming platform on January 1st.
The film, directed by William Friedkin and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, was based on the true story of NYPD detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso.
The famous scene features Jimmy Doyle (Hackman) giving chase in a 1971 Pontiac LeMans, burning rubber through NYC as a bad guy attempts a getaway on the elevated train above him. A scene like this would never be filmed in the way it was then... it wasn't choreographed down to every detail, and there were no permits from the city to film. On top of that, real pedestrians and drivers unaware that a movie was filmed were coming into contact with the scene being shot. From IMDB, an almost unbelievable set of circumstances under which it was filmed:
"The car chase was filmed without obtaining the proper permits from the city. Members of the NYPD's tactical force helped control traffic. But most of the control was achieved by the assistant directors with the help of off-duty NYPD officers, many of whom had been involved in the actual case. The assistant directors, under the supervision of Terence A. Donnelly, cleared traffic for approximately five blocks in each direction. Permission was given to literally control the traffic signals on those streets where they ran the chase car.
Even so, in many instances, they illegally continued the chase into sections with no traffic control, where they actually had to evade real traffic and pedestrians. Many of the (near) collisions in the movie were therefore real and not planned (with the exception of the near-miss of the lady with the baby carriage, which was carefully rehearsed).
A flashing police light was placed on top of the car to warn bystanders. A camera was mounted on the car's bumper for the shots from the car's point-of-view. Hackman did some of the driving but the extremely dangerous stunts were performed by Bill Hickman, with Friedkin filming from the backseat. Friedkin operated the camera himself because the other camera operators were married with children and he was not."
You can hear Friedkin discussing that right here, and here's a great look back on the scene, including one crew member declaring: "It was a terrible thing to do, it was dangerous and it was life threatening."
There was at least one crash that was unplanned—"at the intersection of Stillwell Ave. and 86th St., the man whose car was hit had just left his house a few blocks from the intersection to go to work and was unaware that a car chase was being filmed." The crash was kept in the movie for realism, and the producers paid the car repair bills.
According to one thorough comment on Scouting NY, at least part of the car chase scene was filmed in Ridgewood, Queens. And these guys have charted out the scene locations to determine how fast the car was going—while Friedkin has claimed 90 MPH, they believe it was more like 70 or 80 MPH.