With a 4K restoration of Sorcerer released in selected cinemas this month, it’s a good time as ever to examine some of the best films made by legendary director William Friedkin…
William Friedkin began his directing career with the documentary The People vs. Paul Crump (1962) and dipping his toe into the world of television with an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1965). Friedkin’s directorial film debut Good Times (1967), a musical comedy starring pop duo Sonny and Cher, was successful enough for Friedkin to adapt the play The Birthday Party (1968) into a feature film which garnered critical praise.
The Boys in the Band (1970), a landmark drama of gay cinema, explored the emotional and sexual complexities of a group of gay friends living in New York City. Friedkin’s meticulous attention to detail and appreciation for emotional realism invigorated The Boys in the Band as a piece of the Hollywood New Wave which was an era to make films that represented the changing culture of the United States at the time.
It was The French Connection (1971) that brought William Friedkin his first mainstream success, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and two other statutes at the 44th Academy Awards in 1972. The French Connection redefined the modern crime drama with the brutal portrayal of a hard drinking, racist cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) hell bent on taking down a French heroin trafficking operation in New York City.
Friedkin’s fast and loose direction created a documentary style approach, filming The French Connection in the rundown areas of New York with uncompromising realism, evident in Popeye’s first scene dressed as Santa Claus chasing and berating a criminal after undercover sting operation is blown.
The infamous sequence of Popeye chasing an elevated train while in his car on the street below was filmed for real; Friedkin disregarding filming permits, putting film cameras in the 1971 Pontiac LeMan and telling stunt man Bill Hickman to drive as fast as he could. Friedkin relied on a spontaneous energy from the cast and filming crew to elevate the uneasy cat and mouse tension between Popeye and elusive Charnier (Fernando Rey), the criminal businessman Popeye is desperate to arrest.
Friedkin depicts New York for what it was at the time; dirty, unkempt and isolated which is an extension of Popeye Doyle’s arc as a cop losing himself through his obsession for justice in an unjust world. The French Connection started a recurring theme for Friedkin to focus on flawed characters obsessed with a single goal and objective.
After the immense success of The French Connection, William Friedkin chose to make The Exorcist (1973), an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel of the same name. The Exorcist depicts the unsettling events as guilt ridden priest Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) must save young Regan MacNeill (Linda Blair) who has been possessed by a demonic entity.
The Exorcist is a landmark in innovative special effects and makeup in cinema, all down to Friedkin’s provocative direction that conjured the chilling face of Pazuzu, violent crucifix masturbation and the perverse decay of a young child’s body under the influence of the Devil. William Friedkin successfully ignited a searing discussion about God, the Devil and the value of faith in humanity, while wildly entertaining and terrifying audiences at the same time. The Exorcist receiving ten nominations including Best Picture and Best Director at the 46th Academy Awards brought artistic credibility to the often maligned horror genre, the film winning Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound at the ceremony itself.
With Hollywood at his disposal, William Friedkin made Sorcerer (1977) his next film, a wildly ambitious adaptation of the book Le Salaire de la peur (1950) which had already been adapted into the classic The Wages of Fear (1953) over twenty years previous by director Henri-Georges Clouzot.
Sorcerer explores the existential dread of four criminals put together to transport two trucks with a cargo of nitroglycerine across the South American jungle with the promise of freedom and money to make a new start in life. Sorcerer was vilified a critical and box office disaster at the time of it’s release, confusing audiences with it’s vague title and the first sixteen minutes of the film spoken primarily in French, audiences believing they were watching a foreign language film.
Contemporary film critics consider Sorcerer a forgotten classic of the 1970s, hindered by the release of Star Wars (1977) one month earlier and the tensions between Friedkin and studio executives. Sorcerer went wildly over budget during filming; the $15 million budget hiked to $22 million by the end of production. Sorcerer contains thrilling sequences of the trucks navigating the harsh jungle terrains and decrepit bridges but critical acclaim for Friedkin was nonexistent back in 1977.
Sorcerer was one of many big budget flops from auteur filmmakers that lost studios money, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) being the final nail in the coffin for the Hollywood New Wave.
Studios and audiences had little taste for dark experimental dramas after the wonderment and box office success of Jaws (1975), Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), ultimately stealing thunder from the career of William Friedkin.
But this didn’t stop William Friedkin making the movies he wanted.
Cruising (1980), one of the most divisive films of Friedkin’s career; a crime drama about undercover cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) who immerses himself in the New York gay leather scene to track down a serial killer targeting gay men. Visually stark and probing, Cruising was met with derision from gay rights activists for portraying the gay community in a negative light as well as critics frustrated by an incoherent structure from extensive studio edits that lost Cruising much of it’s sexual ambiguity and mystery.
To Live and Die in LA (1985) proved a return to form for Friedkin, a tense tight thriller about a secret service agent out for revenge after his partner is killed by criminal counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe), however it would take twenty six years before critics took Friedkin seriously again.
Killer Joe (2011), a brooding black comedy starring Emile Hirsch as out-of-his-depth drug dealer Chris Smith who pays hitman “Killer Joe” (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mother to collect the life insurance. Powerhouse performances from McConaughey and the cast to make Killer Joe one of the most unique and morbidly hilarious films of the last decade; Friedkin’s provocateur edge not lost in a scene where a woman is forced to simulate oral sex with a chicken drumstick. Making a modest $3.7 million in cinemas, Killer Joe garnered Friedkin a Golden Lion nomination at the Venice Film Festival in 2011 showing there was still life in the filmmaker yet.
William Friedkin’s career as a director is comparable to a boxer who doesn’t pull punches; the epitome of a determined and committed fighter who gets back up to his feet no matter how many times knocked down.
That attitude is what makes winning filmmakers, and that is why William Friedkin is a champion of cinema.