William Friedkin was a renowned director known for delivering intense and memorable experiences through his films. He had a talent for creating movies that evoked a thrilling and addictive rush, much like hard drugs. Among his impressive filmography, one that stands out for me is his neo-noir crime thriller To Live and Die in LA (1985). I vividly remember being on the edge of my seat during the exhilarating car chase at the airport and a jaw-dropping high-fall stunt.
William Friedkin directed several beloved films in the early 1970s, but his most unsettling and devilishly clever masterpiece was undoubtedly The Exorcist, released in 1973. Adapted from the original novel by William Peter Blatty, this movie was the epitome of horror entertainment during that time. It was an era where people would wait in long lines to see a film that they hoped, expected, and feared would terrify them to their core – a thrilling journey into the unknown. Just as Steven Spielberg elevated the schlock-horror genre with his film Jaws, Friedkin brought a new level of sophistication and respectability to the horror genre.
Similar to pornography, horror films have been highly profitable for cinema since its inception, despite initially being seen as a niche genre. However, horror, particularly those involving Satanic themes, were often portrayed as exotic and foreign, with settings such as Transylvanian castles and sophisticated British vampires. The film The Exorcist was particularly impactful because it brought the concept of Satan and evil into a modern American suburb, a setting that is typically associated with wealth and normalcy. The film’s opening scenes could easily be mistaken for a dramatic portrayal of family dysfunction or political intrigue, highlighting the relatable nature of the story. Even Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski a few years prior, featured a similar cast of characters reminiscent of traditional Hammer horror films.
Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair were exceptional in their roles as Chris and Regan MacNeil, a mother and daughter whose relationship is put to the test when Regan begins exhibiting strange behavior. The film, The Exorcist, touches on themes that could easily be explored in a TV movie, such as drug abuse or eating disorders. Director William Friedkin brilliantly uses these themes as a launching point for the presence of pure evil. As Regan becomes increasingly possessed by a demonic force, her mother seeks professional help. It is clear that only someone from the haunted corners of Old Europe will suffice, and thus Father Merrin, played by Max von Sydow with a gaunt and intense expression, is brought in to perform the exorcism.
The Exorcist is a horror movie that is now often appreciated for its humor, but at the time of its release, it stood out for taking the concept of Satan seriously, which was not a popular trend in the film industry. I recall feeling genuinely scared while watching the scenes in Regan’s bedroom and it never crossed my mind to view it as a symbolic representation of sexual awakening. The malevolent entity in The Exorcist is not a figurative representation; it is a real malevolent entity.
Equally compelling was Friedkin’s 1971 film, The French Connection. This true-crime thriller introduced British audiences to the seedy world of New York, which was grittier, nastier, and scarier than any British city. Tourists could easily stumble upon the same squalor depicted in the movie. The film also paved the way for other depictions of the New York underworld, such as in Lumet’s Serpico and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The movie features an intense car versus subway chase (although, as mentioned, the car chase in To Live And Die In LA is equally impressive), a standout performance by Gene Hackman as “Popeye” Doyle (with his nickname and backstory left unexplored and unexplained by Friedkin), and a chilling portrayal of institutionalized racism within the NYPD.
However, one aspect of The French Connection that is often overlooked is Friedkin’s skillful and measured control of pace. In a modern-day police thriller, there would likely be immediate and intense action scenes soon after the opening credits, or possibly even before. However, Friedkin takes a much slower and subdued approach as we follow Popeye and his partner as they contemplate and wander through the streets of New York. It takes a full hour before any shots are fired. These deliberate surveillance scenes may have even served as inspiration for the acclaimed TV series The Wire.
Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer, which takes place in South America, was not given much attention by critics at the time due to the overwhelming popularity of George Lucas’s Star Wars. It was based on Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel The Wages of Fear, which had already been adapted into a film by Henri-Georges Clouzot with Yves Montand. The fact that it was seen as a remake (although Friedkin disagreed) may have contributed to its lack of recognition. However, the film is a slow-burning masterpiece, with a deliberately long fuse that creates a sense of impending danger. It follows four desperate men as they transport a truck full of nitroglycerin that could explode at any moment. Friedkin’s talent for portraying strangeness, isolation, and existential fear is revealed when the truck becomes stranded in a foreboding and desolate landscape. This austere film showcases Friedkin’s exceptional filmmaking skills.
In other works, Friedkin’s crime movie Cruising from 1980, starring Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover to catch a gay serial killer, has been criticized for only perpetuating the straight world’s fear of homosexuality. However, there are some notable moments, like when Pacino’s boss – played by a young Paul Sorvino, who later gained fame in Scorsese’s Goodfellas – calmly asks him: “Have you ever had sexual relations with a man?” and Pacino calmly responds no, without asserting his sexual orientation. It is a harsh and gritty film that boldly challenges societal norms and may not align with the sensibilities of modern audiences. Similarly, Bug from 2006 was a wild and terrifying movie about insects and craziness written by screenwriter and playwright Tracy Letts. Letts also provided the source material for Friedkin’s intense and morally questionable cop drama Killer Joe, which marked the beginning of Matthew McConaughey’s “McConaissance”. Friedkin was a master filmmaker and expert in creating visceral cinematic experiences.