Ten crime films about drug trafficking to see after The French Connection

In the process of researching and writing my latest piece for the CrimeReads site, on the real-life drug trafficking network that inspired William Friedkin’s ground-breaking 1971 crime film, The French Connection, I compiled a list of other movies directly or indirectly related to the film’s themes, the actual events that informed it, or that were influenced in some way by Friedkin’s classic. I didn’t have the space to include these details in my CrimeReads piece, but the list is below.

Panic in Needle Park (1971)

Around the same time that Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo were pursuing Frog One through the winter streets of New York, The Panic in Needle Park was giving cinema goers a very different picture of the city’s heroin trade. Based on a 1966 novel and adapted for the screen by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn, Jerry Schatzberg’s film is an incredibly downbeat look at the trouble romance between two denizens of New York’s heroin scene, young addict, Helen, the very underrated Kitty Winn, and small-time dealer Bobby, played by Al Pacino. It has been a while since I’ve seen The Panic In Needle Park but from memory it depicts the full spectrum of drug scene related experiences, including police harassment, prostitution, and the chemical highs and lows of addiction.

The Godfather (1972)

One of the main strands of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic is the conflict that explodes amongst New York’s Mafia families when the post-war heroin trade first rears its head. Old school gangster Don Vito Corleone wants no part of it, despite the potentially enormous profits, putting him on a collision course with the country’s other Mafia families, who realise just how much money is to be made by dealing the drug. This strand of the story culminates in what is for my money one of the film’s best scenes, when the families meet in a sanky New York hotel to thrash out their differences.

Hit! (1973)

This 1973 film by Canadian director Sidney J. Furie, who earlier credits include The Ipcress File, is incredibly hard to find – I am not even sure of it has a DVD release – but well worth it if you can. A sort of The Dirty Dozen meets The French Connection, black federal agent Nick Allen (Billy Dee Williams) assembles a team of misfits and outcasts, with a lethal range of skills, to take down the Marseille-based drug syndicate he holds responsible for his daughter’s heroin overdose.

The French Connection II (1975)

I have written at length on this site previously about my love for John Frankenheimer’s sequel to Friedkin’s film. Popeye Doyle, reprised by Hackman, travels to Marseilles several years after The French Connection, on the hunt for French heroin trafficker, Alain Charnier aka ‘Frog One’ (Fernando Rey). What Doyle doesn’t realise is he is being used as bait to flush out Charnier. Before long, the heroin trafficker has picked up Doyle, stashed him to a decrepit hotel in the city’s old quarter, and has his men inject him with heroin to loosen his tongue and find out what he knows. There is so much to like about this film, including an extended scene in which Doyle is locked in a room in the basement of the police headquarters and made him go cold turkey. How many major crime films turn the major talent into a heroin addict and then make them go cold turkey on the screen?  

The Heroin Busters (1977)

Along with films like Dirty Harry, also released in 1971, The French Connection had a major stylistic and tonal influence on the cycle of 1970s Italian crime films known as poliziotteschi. Heroin and other drugs were often in the mix in these films, along with lashing of sex, political and economic corruption, and a general sense of lawlessness which sometimes seemed to verge on outright anarchy. One poliziotteschi film that feels particularly in the spirit of The French Connection is Enzo G. Castellari’s The Heroin Busters. Hard charging, unorthodox undercover Italian cop Fabio (poliziotteschi regular Fabio Testi) teams up with Interpol agent, Mike Hamilton (David Hemmings, who from his accent I think is supposed to playing Australian) to break up an international heroin smuggling ring. Along with a kick arse Golbin soundtrack, in the spirit of The French Connection Castellari’s film contains an extended chase sequence in which Testi pursues a drug kingpin by motorbike, care and eventually light aeroplane.

Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978)

Based on the 1974 novel Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, Who’ll Stop the Rain is a wonderfully dark depiction of the domestic blowback from America’s war in Vietnam. War correspondent and former radical John Converse (Michael Moriarty) decides to buy two kilos of uncut heroin in Saigon and smuggle it back to California. He approaches his old marine corps buddy turned merchant seaman, Ray Hicks (Nick Nolte) to deliver it to his wife, Marge (Tuesday Weld), in return for a thousand dollars. While Hicks successfully smuggles the drugs into the States, he and Marge don’t realise the criminal toes they have stepped on due to Converse’s decision to enter the heroin trafficking business and end up on the run from a couple psychopaths led by Antheil, a bent drug enforcement agent, a great turn by Anthony Zerbe. As Hicks and Marge flee, they come across remnants of America’s decaying counter-culture, bent film execs and middle class swingers who do drug deals over a glass of Chablis and sitar music. Eventually they end up in an abandoned hippie commune in New Mexico, where the final confrontation takes place.

Midnight Express (1978)

As I discussed in my CrimeReads piece, infighting among the Corsican crime groups, political pressure on Turkey as a supplier of opium, and improved cooperation between US and French law enforcement led to the breakup of the French Connection heroin trafficking network in the 1970s. Midnight Express was directed by Alan Parker and written by Oliver Stone, who based his script on a 1977 autobiographical book of the same name by Bill Hayes. The book told of Hayes’s experience in and eventual escape from a Turkish prison after being imprisoned for drug smuggling. Although Hayes was smuggling hashish not heroin, his story shows one faciet of the human cost of US political pressure on the Turkish government to crackdown on drug smuggling. Hayes was originally given four years, but this was increased make an example of him to the US authorities. Actor Brad Davis gives an incredibly compelling performance in the role of Hayes, although the film was accused of taking liberties with the source material, including making both the Turkish prison authorities and inmates far more brutal than they were in real life.

Prince of the City (1981)

Around the same time that Washington was pressuring Turkey to curb drug production, US police were breaking up an organised crime network that trafficked the heroin up and down the east coast of the United States. This included unearthing major corruption in the New York Police Department. The full extent of this was never fully exposed but it was thought to include bent cops accessing the NYPD’s property/evidence storage room, where they helped themselves to some of the hundreds of kilograms of heroin lay seized from the French Connection bust, replacing missing drug with flour to prevent detection. The break-up of this corrupt cabal of cops is the backdrop to Sidney Lumet’s 1981 neo noir, Prince of the City. This film was based on the 1978 book by Robert Daley about a NYPD narcotics officer – Treat Williams in the film – who chooses to expose police corruption and the reverberations from this.

Year of the Dragon (1985)

Michael Cinimo’s Year of the Dragon revolves around two men: newly installed head of the Chinatown command of the NYPD and embittered Vietnam veteran, Stanley White (Mickey Rourke); and Triad Young Turk Joey Tai (John Lone), who is seeking to wrest control of Chinatown’s illegal activities from an older generation of criminals and their allies in the Italian Mafia. A misanthropic racist, White treats the battle against crime in Chinatown as an extension of America’s failed conflict against communism in Southeast Asia. As part of this, he cultivates a relationship with an ambitious Asian American TV reporter, Tracy Tzu (Ariane Koizumi), to whom he feeds information about the criminal goings on in Chinatown. The film includes a great scene in which Tai travels to Thailand to wrangle a large drug deal with the notorious Golden Triangle warlord, Ban Sung (obviously based on the then real-life Golden Triangle drug lord, Khun Sa), and eliminate a major competitor, called ‘White Powder Mao’.

Air America (1990)

There is not a lot to recommend Roger Spottiswoode’s film except for the fact that it is the only movie that depicts the so-called Secret War in Laos, in which Vietnamese backed Pathet Lao fought against the Central Intelligence Agency and its local proxies. The CIA’s activities included encouraging ethnic Lao hill tribes to grow opium in return for their assistance in fighting communists. There were also pretty well document claims that opium was transported to Saigon in planes owned by the CIA’s airline, Air America. The film tells the story of new to Laos Air America pilot, Billy (Robert Downey Jr.), who is shocked to discover the conflict is being used as a smoke screen for CIA involvement in the country’s opium trade. Billy persuades hard-bitten Air American veteran, Gene (Mel Gibson), to change his ways and help him undermine the trade. While the movie almost completely plays it for laughs, a significant part of its depiction of America’s activities in Laos, including the top secret Air America based in Long Tieng, and the lifestyle of the Air America pilots is fairy accurate.


10 Responses

  1. Thanks for the recommendations. Always a pleasure reading your blog

  2. The Sicilian Connection (Afyon oppio, 1972), director: Ferdinando Baldi. The Italian answer to The French Connection

    • Cheers for this, Michael. As I indicated in my list, it has been a while since I’ve seen The Panic in Needle Park. But writing about it again here has made me want to do a rewatch.

  3. It actually holds up. Raul Julia is in it too. It might’ve been Julia’s first film. I just watched Hit…oh, we’ll have to talk about that one in detail later. Let me just say, I wasn’t a fan.

  4. Great piece. I want to see ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’.

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