William Friedkin (1935-2023) Career Retrospective

William Friedkin (1935-2023) Career Retrospective

William Friedkin (1935-2023) Career Retrospective. By Simon Thompson.

William Friedkin was one of the great iconoclasts in the history of American filmmaking, a director for whom the term “mad lad” would be a severe understatement. Friedkin took risks and constantly challenged himself artistically within a Hollywood landscape that, thanks to the collapse of the old studio system and the eroding of the Hays censorship code in the late 1960s, allowed writers and directors to freely express themselves for the first time in the history of American film. 

The “New-Hollywood” era, as it would come to be known, was spearheaded by a group of young directors largely straight out of film school: Martin Scorsese; Francis Ford Coppola; Paul Schrader; Brian De Palma; Woody Allen; George Lucas; Steven Spielberg; John Milius; Bob Rafelson; Peter Bogdanovic; Arthur Penn; and John Cassavetes. What set the New Hollywood generation apart was its reverence for foreign films – and the fact that most of them had been trained in art schools rather than on the job, as previous generations had done.

Even as a part of an artistic collective that didn’t exactly contain artistic shrinking violets, Friedkin’s work – in particular The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) – still stands among the most revered and controversial American movies ever made. But what of his career after these two movies? What caused both Friedkin and his work to fall out of fashion over the next few decades?

William Friedkin was born and brought up in Chicago to a family of modest means. Despite being a frequent movie-goer throughout his teens, it was only when he saw Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) for the first time at the age of 25 that Friedkin realised his true calling was to become a director. Influenced not only by Citizen Kane,but also by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Henri Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and The Wages of Fear (1953) Friedkin started his career as a director working in documentary filmmaking and live TV, directing one of the last ever episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (where apparently Alfred Hitchcock was irritated that Friedkin wouldn’t wear a tie whilst directing) and a documentary made for Chicago TV titled The People VS Paul Crump about a death row inmate. 

Eventually Friedkin made his move to Hollywood in 1965, but his start in the bright lights of tinsel town could be described charitably as frustrating. Friedkin’s first Hollywood movie, a Sonny and Cher starring vehicle entitled Good Times (1965), was a bizarre satirical anthology of genre cinema that Friedkin would later go on to label as ‘unwatchable’ . Following Good Times, Friedkin’s next few projects The Birthday Party (1968), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) and The Boys in a Band (1970)would all fly under the radar.

In 1971 Friedkin would finally make the movie which would make him a critical and commercial household name, The French Connection, a film whose importance cannot possibly be overstated both in the context of Friedkin’s career but also American filmmaking as a whole. Budgeted at a modest $1.8 million The French Connection was a cynical, pessimistic look at law enforcement adapted from Robin Moore’s true-crime novel ‘The French Connection: The World’s Most Crucial Narcotics Investigation,’about a group of police officers trying to bring down the notorious and eponymous heroin-trafficking ring. 

Ernest Tidyman’s screenplay changed several identities from Moore’s novel, re-naming the characters Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloud” Russo so as to protect identities of their real-life counterparts’.Indeed, The French Connection was ground-breaking at the time for Friedkin’s blending of fiction and reality: he shot the film on location in New York, giving it a documentary-like sense of realism unseen in American crime cinema since The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or Gun Crazy (1951). The visuals also owe a debt to Friedkin’s documentary past, but it was his love of neo-realist cinema and specifically of Costa Garvas’s Z (1969) that helped him understand how to shoot The French Connection: 

After I saw Z, I realized how I could shoot The French Connection. Because he shot Z like a documentary. It was a fiction film, but it was made like it was actually happening. Like the camera didn’t know what was gonna happen next. And that is an induced technique. It looks like he happened upon the scene and captured what was going on as you do in a documentary. My first films were documentaries too. So, I understood what he was doing but I never thought you could do that in a feature at that time until I saw Z. (Friedkin, 2013)

The French Connection was a critical and commercial smash-hit, grossing $75 million dollars worldwide and being nominated for eight academy awards, winning five, including Best Picture and Best Director for Friedkin. After a modest start Friedkin had truly arrived in Hollywood- with awards and financial success to his name the future seemed to be very bright indeed. 

Around the time The French Connection’s shoot was wrapping up, the option for William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror novel The Exorcist was circulating around Hollywood studios. Warner Brothers had approached both Arthur Penn and Stanley Kubrick to bring Blatty’s novel to the big screen, but Blatty himself was a rabid fan of The French Connection and wanted a director who could “…bring the look of documentary realism to this incredible story” (Savlov,2000 p1). Luckily for both men, Friedkin was already enamoured with The Exorcist, going as far as to cancel dinner plans so he could spend an evening finishing the novel. 

The shoot for The Exorcist (1973), though, would prove to be nearly as apocalyptic as that of Francis Ford Coppola’s notorious Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now. First there was Friedkin’s insistence to Warner Bros on casting relative unknowns Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in the leading roles, then the budget would escalate all the way to $12 million dollars, as well as Friedkin’s hands-on directing style extending to him firing blanks at actor Jason Miller to get a genuine reaction out of him. The principal photography cycle saw the movie’s crew fluctuate between the scorching desert of Mosul in Iraq and in freezing cold refrigerated sets. Finally, an accident involving a bird and a circuit breaker burnt down large sections of the set, and various props were shipped to the wrong locations which contributed to the shooting schedule being delayed further.

Nonetheless, The Exorcist was a roaring success. The movie’s controversial religious themes and graphic imagery generated public interest to the tune of a $428 million dollar profit. Thanks to its ground-breaking use of practical effects and makeup, chilling atmosphere, Jack Nitchze’s carefully crafted sound design, and Friedkin’s liberal application of viscera during the possession sequences, The Exorcist is widely considered a hallmark in horror. Friedkin gambled with a Hollywood studio’s time, money, and patience, and won, snatching a masterpiece from the jaws of a bloated shoot. The Exorcist managed to capture the cultural zeitgeist; with it, one of American cinema’s greatest uncompromising artists had a blank check to make whatever he wanted. 

What Friedkin wanted was something called Sorcerer, a project that would take four years to see the light of day and that for better or worse would define the second half of Friedkin’s artistic career. His vision was an attempt at paying homage to one of his great heroes, Henri Georges Clouzot, and Clouzot’s movie The Wages of Fear (itself an adaptation of the Georges Arnaud novel of the same name). In part because Friedkin sensed that Sorcerer would define his legacy as a director, he underwent a filmmaking odyssey to make The Exorcist’s production look like a campfire singalong. It took Friedkin’s single-minded determination to see the shoot through – Sorcerer’s budget ballooned to $22 million (roughly $112 million in today’s money pushing it near the budgetary range of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer) thanks in no small part to issues filming on-location in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, outbreaks of food poisoning and malaria, and technical difficulties with the special effects. 

These included the fact that the dynamite which Friedkin ordered didn’t contain enough explosive power to blow up a tree, so he decided to hire a shady Dominican serial arsonist from New York going by the name of Marvin the Torch to get the job done. To make matters worse not only were the original prints of certain scenes too dark to see requiring extensive re-shoots in the Dominican jungle but Friedkin’s domineering personality meant that he fell out with the teamster’s union of truckers he’d hired for the movie and five separate production managers. Finally, Friedkin was tipped off by an undercover FBI agent that various crew members were in possession of illegal substances, and that the only option was for them was to leave the country to skip lengthy prison sentences, so Friedkin had to fire numerous important stuntmen, make-up artists, and key-grips. 

The film was finally released in June of 1977. However, this turned out to be its greatest misfortune, as the previous month saw the release of a George Lucas film entitled Star Wars. That film’s overwhelming success signalled a sea change in American filmmaking. Gone were the days when serious, dark, intellectual movies like The French Connection or The Godfather dominated the box office; the age of the summer blockbuster, with its an emphasis on mass entertainment, had arrived. 

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that Sorcerer was savaged by critics who held it in inferior regard to The Wages of Fear and was met with indifference at the box office, earning back only $9 million which is especially damning when compared to the original Star Wars which earned $775.8 million off an $11 million budget. Sorcerer was a measured adult thriller, which featured a cast mainly unknown to American audiences (besides Roy Schneider of course) a slow-burn elliptical narrative, and a truly dreadful marketing campaign by the studio all of which were instrumental in Sorcerer’s failure in re-capturing the box-office magic of Friedkin’s two previous movies.

Critically Sorcerer was mauled upon its release. British critic Leslie Halliwell went as far to call Sorcerer an insult as well as saying “Why anyone would want to spend 20 million dollars on a remake of The Wages of Fear, do it badly, and give it a misleading title is anybody’s guess. The result is dire.” Some critics, such as Roger Ebert, praised Sorcerer labelling it an “overlooked masterpiece” on his show Sneak Previews, championing its mix of engrossing action and cerebral commentary on the nature of greed and desperation. Vincent Canby of The New York Times was another respected critic who praised Sorcerer calling it “a good little melodrama surrounded by some pulp” and praised Roy Schneider’s performance. Sadly, for Friedkin, critics were nowhere near as complimentary across the board as Ebert and Canby, which when coupled with the appalling marketing didn’t help the cause of Sorcerer at the box office.

In the years since its release Sorcerer has gone on to be significantly re-appraised by critics and leading directors such as Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and Nicolas Winding Refn who have all publicly championed the movie as an underappreciated classic. Sorcerer was cursed both by the timing of its release and the scope of Friedkin’s artistic ambition, like the work of The Velvet Underground, or Radiohead’s album Kid A, or 2001 A Space Odyssey. The simple passage of time and critics examining it on its own merits rather than comparing it to Wages of Fear has allowed Sorcerer to be better appreciated than it was when it first came out.

In the wider context of American cinema history Sorcerer represents one of the first chinks in the armour for the New Hollywood movement, as thanks to the movie’s out of control production and sizeable budget, it created a feeling amongst studio executives that high risk low reward was not a sustainable business plan. To blame Friedkin entirely for this realisation isn’t exactly fair, but there is a kind of unspoken belief amongst his detractors that Sorcerer and Friedkin himself are somehow culpable for other New-Hollywood era big budget flops such as Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), and Coppola’s One From the Heart (1982) all of which tanked at the box office, thanks in no small part to the Star Wars effect. 

Unlike some of his contemporaries such as Michael Cimino, Friedkin didn’t go away after Sorcerer, making a crime comedy titled The Brink’s Job one year later in 1978. Starring Peter Falk (aka Columbo himself), The Brink’s Job was a movie Friedkin was forced to make like a beaten dog by the Hollywood powers that be, to show he was still a director that could make something that was at least somewhat commercially viable. After the indignities of this forced studio filmmaking, Friedkin would follow up The Brinks Job two years later with one of his most brilliant yet controversial movies,the murder-mystery/slasher drama Cruising (1980) adapted from the novel of the same title by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker.

If Sorcerer was the movie that marked Friedkin out as not to be trusted by studio bosses, then Cruising by comparison functioned as Friedkin’s Hollywood suicide note, the movie that in spite of its quality resulted in studios not wanting to piss on Friedkin even if he were on fire. A true crime thriller in the mould of The French Connection, Cruising focuses on a police detective named Steve Burns (played to perfection by Al Pacino) who goes under-cover into New York City’s leather scene on the trail of a serial killer who has been targeting gay men. 

On the set problems included Friedkin consulting the mafia for access to the movie’s club locations and the fact that Friedkin’s relationship with his star Al Pacino could be diplomatically described as testy. Friedkin and Pacino fell out over the movie’s story/direction, and Friedkin in particular gained great disdain toward what he called Pacino’s ‘lack of professionalism’, to the extent that in interview about Cruising years later Friedkin would go on to say that he “… doesn’t give a flying fuck, into a rolling donut, about what Al Pacino thinks”. (Friedkin,2021)

When shooting finally wrapped the movie was thrown into a firestorm of controversy from gay-rights groups who claimed the movie was homophobic and demeaning, with many prominent gay activist groups launching extensive protests leading to many cinemas in America limiting or outright stopping the distribution of Cruising. 

Is Cruising homophobic? if you ask me it’s unfairly demonised, as the gay community in the movie, to me anyway, are portrayed as being likeable and wholly decent, in fact the straight cops are presented as being just as bad as the killer in that they don’t care or actively show disdain towards the issue and the LGBT community as a whole. Cruising of course has its flaws when portraying these issues as Friedkin himself has articulated:

Cruising came out around a time that gay liberation had made enormous strides among the general public. It also came out around the same time that AIDS was given a name. I simply used the background of the S&M world to do a murder mystery; it was based on a real case. But the timing of it was difficult because of what had been happening to gay people. Of course, it was not really set in a gay world; it was the S&M world. But many critics who wrote for gay publications or the underground press felt that the film was not the best foot forward as far as gay liberation was concerned, and they were right. Now it’s re-evaluated as a film. It could be found wanting as a film, but it no longer has to undergo the stigma of being an anti-gay screed, which it never was.” (Ebiri,2013)

Whereas controversy had been an ally of Friedkin before, with the release of Cruising it was actively working against him, as reflected by the critical mauling and multiple Razzie awards the movie received upon its release. However, like Sorcerer before it Cruising went on to be greatly re-valued over time with the directing duo the Safdie Bros namechecking it as a favourite of theirs and even academics such as Camille Paglia praising it’s “underground decadence”. (Adnum,2006)

Post Cruising Friedkin’s career would wildly fluctuate, he’d constantly find himself between the fringe and the mainstream in a Hollywood that only wanted conformity and predictability. It’s a shame because post 1980 he would truly fascinate and compel with underappreciated gems such as To Live and Die in La (1985) and Rampage (1987), as well directing the 90s basketball star-studded time capsule Blue Chips (1994) featuring NBA legends Shaq and Penny Hardaway as the leads.

It would be a disservice to mention Friedkin’s output circa 1990-2003 in the same breath as his work from 1971-1987, with most of the movies he made around this time being what I would charitably call interesting experiments that don’t quite land, for example Jade (1995) or The Hunted (2003). But from 2006 onwards Friedkin was making something of a late career come back with a return to his crime/horror roots with Bug (2006) and the fantastic Southern fried neo-noir Killer Joe (2011).

Post 2011 Friedkin would continue to be an active public figure and was working on a new movie titled The Caine Mutiny- Court Martial scheduled for release this year. Sadly, Friedkin passed away in August 2023 from heart failure and pneumonia in his home in Los Angeles, California at the age of 87. He leaves behind his wife Sherry, his two sons Jackson and Cedric, and one of the more varied and important cinematic legacies in the history of American cinema.


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