Speed of a Car: The French Connection

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French Connection starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider premiered in 1971 and follows two narcotics officers trying to prevent a smuggling job. This true-story based action film contains one of the most novel car chases in all cinema. The main character Detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, played by Gene Hackman, chases a hit man sent to kill him, played by Marcel Bozzuffi, through Brooklyn. Their route begins at Bay 50th street station in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, along Stillwell Avenue, into 86th street and ends at the 62nd street station. The chase lasted 26 city blocks under the N subway line.

Every scene was filmed in one take without closing the streets. Two stunt cars were set up along the path. Popeye was supposed to drive around these cars however three crashes occurred, two with the stunt cars, and one actual crash. The director states, in the director's commentary, that the car was traveling at 90 mph during some of the scenes. Did Popeye's car actually travel at 90 mph?

screen capture
The crash with a civilian car (left) and Popeye's car (right). at Bay 50th & Stillwell Avenue.

We timed and measured the distance of various intersections in order to record the average velocity of the car over several intervals. Using a map we measured the length and time between each intersection.

  Intersection
(where known)
Time
(min:s)
Time
(s)
Distance
(km)
0 Bay 50th Street Station at Stillwell Avenue 0:26 26 0
1   0:50 50  
2   0:52 52  
3   0:58 58  
4   1:03 63  
5   1:34 94  
6   1:41 101  
7   1:48 108  
8   2:29 149  
9 25th Avenue Station at 86th Street 2:40 160 1
10 25th Avenue Station at 86th Street 3:18 198 1
11 Avenue V & Stillwell Avenue 3:23 203 0.8
12 Crash at Bay 50th & Stillwell Avenue 3:29 209  
13   3:48 228  
14   3:52 232  
15 86th Street & 19th Avenue 4:02 242 2.4
16 86th Street & 23rd Avenue 4:09 249 1.56
17   4:18 258  
18 86th Street & Bay Parkway 4:26 266 1.8
19   4:32 272  
20 86th Street & New Utrecht Avenue 4:38 278 2.72
21   5:02 302  
22   5:12 312  
23   5:35 335  
24   5:43 345  
25   5:46 346  
26   5:49 349  
27   6:09 369  
28 62nd Street Station at New Utrecht Avenue 6:15 375 4.64

In the film the scenes are shown out of order. If you pay close attention, you may notice certain locations are shown twice. The following graphs show the distances and times of eight selected intersections.

graph

This graph shows the vast discontinuity in the scene shown in the movie. In reality parts of the scene were filmed out of order.

adjusted graph

This graph shows the distance without the discontinuity.

Starting
Location
Ending
Location
Starting
Time (s)
Ending
Time (s)
Average Velocity (km/h)
Start of Chapter Bay 50th Street Station 0 26 0
Bay 50th Street Station 25th Aveue Station 26 149 29.7
25th Aveue Station 25th Aveue Station 149 198 0
25th Aveue Station 86th & New Utrecht 198 278 77.4
86th & New Utrecht 62nd Street Station 278 369 71.3
62nd Street Station   369   0

adjusted graph

This velocity graph was constructed by taking the derivative of the second distance-time graph. Although not shown, the velocity was measured in km/h. According to this graph, Popeye's car does not hit 90 mph despite what the director claimed.

Michael Calamera, Jerard Kneifati-Hayek, Erik Hageman, Geeta Malieckal -- 2005

Physics on Film pages in The Physics Factbook™ for 2005


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