The Good, the Bad & the Badass: William Friedkin
Last week, we took a look at the career of comedy maestro Mel Brooks. This weeks subject is another director, albeit of much, MUCH harsher fare. If any director deserves to be called a badass, its this guy.
If I were to make a top ten list of my favorite films, I guarantee William Friedkin would have two movies on that list. Of the seventies auteurs, Friedkin along with Martin Scorsese is my favorite. Through reading his (excellent) biography, The Friedkin Connection I discovered that he started his career as a documentary director. He used a lot of the skills he honed as a documentarian in his feature films, giving them a tough authenticity that was wholly original for the era.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION wasn't his first film, but it was the movie that marked his arrival as one of the great talents of the New Hollywood. Even following tough-cop movies like BULLITT and DIRTY HARRY, THE FRENCH CONNECTION's Popeye Doyle, as played by Gene Hackman, was starkly different. In Friedkin's film, he was a mostly unlikable guy that you can still root for thanks to his dogged persistence in tracking down the french heroin connection that was bringing drugs in to NYC (a real case). Famous for its car chase, Friedkin took home an Academy Award for best director, and his reputation only grew with his follow-up, THE EXORCIST, which was among the most financially successful films of the decade, and the horror movie most are still measured against to this day.
Sadly, Friedkin's popularity waned due to the financial failure of his follow-up films, some of which like SORCERER (more on that later) and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A (with a car chase that might actually be better than the one in FRENCH CONNECTION) were masterpieces, but sadly did not find audiences until years later. He bounced back around the millennium with the successful courtroom drama RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, and has recently had a fruitful relationship with playwright Tracy Letts, with him having directed two films BUG and KILLER JOE based on his work. At seventy-eight, Friedkin's work remains as vital as ever.
For Friedkin's best, I have to choose THE EXORCIST, which remains my favorite horror film of all-time. While the expanded version from 2000 diminished the film with a tacked-on happy ending (which writer William Peter Blatty always fought for) the original cut (which is thankfully widely available) is a full-on masterpiece, and one of the most unsettling movies ever made. As a (lapsed) Catholic, this movie, with its depiction of demonic possession, absolutely terrifies me to this day. I should mention that I'm not someone that's easily shaken by a film. Yet each and every time I watch THE EXORCIST I walk away feeling deeply unsettled. Most of that is due to Friedkin''s docudrama-like direction, and the amazing performances by Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, and the amazing Jason Miller as the tragic Father Kerras. Oh, and let's not forget Tubular Bells. Honestly one of my favorite films of all time.
It's tough for me to call any of Friedkin's films overrated. There are movies of his I plainly don't like (such as the badly dated CRUISING, or JADE), but when I go for Friedkin's movies, I go for them in a big way. RULES OF ENGAGEMENT is maybe the exception. The first half-hour of this film is almost incredible, with unsettling early scenes depicting a bloody ambush in Vietnam and an embassy siege in Yemen. After these two bravura sequences, it's disappointing that the film becomes a courtroom drama, but alas, those were in vogue at the time. It's still a decent film, but the first half hour promised greatness which isn't quite delivered.
Easily Friedkin's most underrated movie is SORCERER (which finally comes out on Blu-ray this week). His follow-up to THE EXORCIST, it's a mega-budget remake of THE WAGES OF FEAR, that cost enough that two studios signed on to produce it. Next to THE EXORCIST, it's my favorite Friedkin film, and a full-on masterpiece. Roy Scheider is amazing as a Jersey hood on the run from the mob, who finds himself holed-up in a sketchy South American village. Along with three other criminals in similarly desperate straits, he's hired to transport a load of aged and unstable nitroglycerin through the jungle in an old Sorcerer truck. It winds up being a brutal, existential journey, all scored to an incredible synth soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. The fact that this opened so hot on the heels of STAR WARS doomed it to failure at the box office (the grim tone probably didn't help), but what's really awful is that the critics stuck their noses up at it, when it should been received as the masterful work of cinema that we all know it is now.
While I think TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A probably has the better chase, the one in FRENCH CONNECTION probably can't be beat on an iconic level. It's short, sweet, and incredibly harrowing. It's also interesting to see how Gene Hackman's performance adds to the chase, despite the fact that he didn't do any of his own driving. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is what great acting is all about.
Friedkin's currently promoting his remastered edition of SORCERER. Whether or not he has a new film in the pipeline is as of yet unknown. I'd love to see him tackle action or horror again before he hangs up his camera.