In William Friedkin’s memoir, The Friedkin Connection, he describes the pivotal moments as a young man when he recognized the potential of the movies and the performing arts: seeing Citizen Kane at a repertory theater; attending a performance of The Rite Of Spring; watching Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party; immersing himself in the exciting foreign cinema of the 1950s. Yet when most Friedkin fans think about his movies, Orson Welles and Russian ballet aren’t the first influences that spring to mind. Films like The French Connection, The Exorcist, To Live And Die In L.A., and Killer Joe conform more to Friedkin’s public persona as a tough, self-taught guy who grew up in a working-class Chicago family and skipped college. Friedkin’s work is rarely overtly “arty.” It’s more about immediacy.
A lot of that has to do with Friedkin’s roots in documentary filmmaking and live television. While still in his teens, Friedkin got a job in the mail room at WGN in Chicago, and before long, he’d worked his way into the studio, learning about blocking and camera moves in a medium where economy is essential. (In his book, Friedkin describes how his boss got tired of watching him arrange cans for a commercial, and gave him a command that stuck in his head thereafter: “Make a picture out of it!”) When he reached the limits of what he could do in live TV, Friedkin pestered his bosses to let him make a documentary film, The People Vs. Paul Crump, about a death-row inmate whom Friedkin felt was being railroaded. The film impressed enough people that Friedkin was invited out to Los Angeles to continue making TV docs, and once he was on the coast, he started networking, and developed a reputation as a young man on the rise. Given that he arrived just in time for what came to be known as the “New Hollywood” era, soon Friedkin transitioned from documentaries to feature films.
But he was always a little out of place among film-school brats like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese—and not just because he never went to film school. Like Robert Altman, John Frankenheimer, and Sidney Lumet, Friedkin belonged more to the generation of TV-trained auteurs, who had a different idea of what constituted “craft,” and weren’t fond of futzing around on a set. It makes sense that Friedkin’s closest director friends in the early 1970s were Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich—not because his films had anything in common with theirs, or even that he had a similar cinephile background, but because he, too, worked in show business for more than a decade before he became successful in Hollywood.
But also like Coppola and Bogdanovich, Friedkin has followed a jagged career path, with the boom years of the 1970s followed by high-profile failures, and gigs other big-name directors likely would’ve passed on. From the 1980s on, Friedkin’s filmography is littered with episodic television assignments and promotional videos, as well as movies that came and went from theaters quickly—even though in several cases, they’re far better than their reputation. And though Friedkin’s love of fine arts and foreign films rarely comes through in his work, his films are more personal and distinctive than they often get credit for being. He’s a man of contradictions—which is probably why he’s made so many movies about people at war with society and themselves.
|3||The People Vs. Paul Crump||1962|
|3||The Night They Raided Minsky’s||1968|
|2.5||The Birthday Party||1968|
|3.5||The Boys In The Band||1970|
In The Friedkin Connection, Friedkin is brutally honest about his own work—including the TV jobs that made his reputation. His first real film, The People Vs. Paul Crump, won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and led to an inmate’s execution being stayed, but Friedkin now sees it less as a noble exercise in exacting justice, and more an example of a documentarian and his subject using each other to further their respective causes. For Paul Crump, the film raised awareness of the flaws in the case against him, making him a cause célèbre after he’d languished on death row for nearly a decade. For Friedkin, who’d been grinding away in TV since the early 1950s, the project allowed him to show he’d absorbed something from all the art films he’d been watching. The People Vs. Paul Crump combines re-creations and interviews, all shot in black and white, and it mixes in earthy handheld camerawork and local color. The documentary is half vérité and half New Wave: an expressive, compassionate, and rather uncompromisingly gritty look at a part of Chicago rarely seen on TV, even now. Friedkin learned a lot from Paul Crump that he brought to later films, including how to order people around—and even bully them—to get what he wanted more quickly.
The People Vs. Paul Crump led to Friedkin taking a job in Los Angeles with David L. Wolper’s documentary unit, for whom he made TV specials about daredevils (The Bold Men), cops (The Thin Blue Line), and the NFL (Mayhem On A Sunday Afternoon). Most of those films have disappeared into the vaults—if they still exist at all—but Friedkin insists that’s no great loss, describing his Wolper work as unfocused, and compromised by his bosses’ interference. (“They stripped me of the ambition to make films that reflected my own sensibilities,” he complains in his memoir.) Friedkin was also hired to direct an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour—a seedy little teleplay about a policeman with violent tendencies—but while it skated through the production process, Friedkin didn’t do anything with the material that would lead anyone to think that he was just half a decade away from making a couple of the biggest hits Hollywood had ever seen.
Friedkin’s 1967 feature directorial debut, Good Times, finally let him stretch. Intended as a cheap vehicle for rising pop duo Sonny & Cher, Good Times was mapped out by Friedkin and Sonny Bono to be a rocksploitation movie about rocksploitation movies, with Sonny & Cher playing a hot vocal group who sign a contract to make a film for a devilish producer (played by a well-cast George Sanders), then dither over how best to do it. This kind of meta approach to the rock musical wasn’t all that rare in the late 1960s; if anything, it was the standard way to make these kinds of films back then. Good Times’ big twist was that it also strung together spoofs of other genres—from Westerns to film noir—although that backlot goofery comes off as too leaden and too prolonged to get laughs, and suffers from the relative lack of Cher, who was reluctant to do much in a film that she reportedly knew from the start was a dud. And that’s too bad, because the movie really only comes to life when Sonny & Cher are onscreen at the same time, lovingly kidding each other and singing their upbeat songs.
The biggest lesson Friedkin learned from Good Times was that he didn’t much enjoy working in Hollywood studios with union crews, who in Friedkin’s opinion, took too long to set up shots, then didn’t give him what he asked for. To him, the best parts of Good Times were the scenes he shot guerilla-style around Los Angeles, with some of his old Chicago cohorts. Friedkin was given a chance to play more to his strengths with his next project, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, an account of a 1920s burlesque theater written and produced by Norman Lear. Shot on location in New York City, The Night They Raided Minsky’s largely avoids the phoniness that made Good Times feel so inconsequential. Even the scenes shot at the reconstructed Minksy’s have a documentary feel, thanks to a restless handheld camera and the use of creative angles to convey the size of the space. Friedkin gives viewers both the backstage perspective and the view from the audience, with an emphasis on the constantly jiggling showgirls—getting across exactly why burlesque was so popular.
But as Friedkin notes in his memoir, The Night They Raided Minsky’s needs to be a lot looser and hipper. Instead, it’s saddled with corny period gags and a slow-moving plot, all about Minsky’s top comics (played by Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom) trying to put one over on an anti-vice crusader by promoting a risqué act that turns out to be a Biblical pageant. Britt Ekland plays the virtuous dancer at the center of the act—in keeping with the 1960s Hollywood trend of casting foreign ingenues as romantic leads, even in comedies where a command of language matters—and while everyone in the cast is game, Friedkin seems far more interested in where the action’s taking place than he is in what the people in the frame are saying and doing.
After Friedkin’s early musical comedies, he directed two filmed plays, one based on an early inspiration: Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Pinter’s play is about a morose middle-aged man named Stanley who spends an uncomfortable evening with his neighbors and two mysterious visitors (possibly associated with organized crime) who pester him, harangue him, and force him to play games. Though in the same absurdist vein as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?—in that it minimizes explanations for what’s happening, and instead reduces human interactions to raw confrontation and conflict—Friedkin’s The Birthday Party isn’t as dreamy and expressionistic as Mike Nichols’ version of the Albee play. Friedkin doesn’t have an invisible camera; he deploys sudden zooms, overhead shots, and a dramatic first-person effect during a harrowing game of blind man’s buff. But Friedkin mostly makes a claustrophobic play seem all the more cramped—and more uncomfortable to watch.
With 1970’s The Boys In The Band, Friedkin was able to combine The Birthday Party’s literary quality with the vivid location shooting of The Night They Raided Minsky’s. Matt Crowley’s original Off-Broadway play was the talk of the town when it opened in 1968, because it was one of the rare pieces of popular entertainment at the time that depicted gay life in different varieties: flamboyant queens, witty aesthetes, closeted conservatives, sex-crazed boy-toys, etc. It also drew controversy in the gay community, because over the course of one evening’s dinner party, the characters gradually become less congenial and begin to wallow in depression and self-disgust, painting a defeatist picture of what it was like to be a gay New Yorker in the late 1960s.
Regardless of the impression The Boys In The Band left at the time, it remains a valuable portrait of its era, simultaneously bracing and engrossing. It helps that Friedkin films the play like a documentary, using subtle camera moves to capture the cluttered apartment where the action takes place, to illustrate how and where the characters fit in. The Boys In The Band also works because it makes no excuses or introductions. Friedkin and Crowley presume that anyone watching this film—straight or gay, New Yorker or middle-American—will already know men like this, and will care enough about them to want to know more. Friedkin still hadn’t made a great film at this point, but he was on the right track.
|5||The French Connection||1971|
|2.5||Fritz Lang Interviewed By William Friedkin||1974|
|3.5||The Brink’s Job||1978|
The Boys In The Band faded from theaters as quickly as Friedkin’s previous three films, and at age 35, he was in Hollywood with four flops under his belt, and saddled with a reputation as an artsy obscurant who tended to squabble with his producers and casts. To the average moviegoer, he was still an unknown. To the people who ran the studios, he was a medium-talent from Chicago who’d gotten more lucky breaks than he deserved. When The Exorcist novelist William Peter Blatty first pitched Friedkin to Warner Bros. as the director he wanted for his movie version, he was flatly told, “We don’t get Friedkin.” But Friedkin’s sociability kept him in the game. In Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Blatty is quoted as saying, “He knew something about everything, especially the film business. He had a hale, convivial presence that I enjoyed immensely.” It was the ease with which Friedkin made friends—off the set, anyway—that brought him into contact with producer Phil D’Antoni, which in turn landed Friedkin a gig directing a no-big-deal true-life cops-and-robbers thriller that became an unexpected sensation, and made his career.
Friedkin himself didn’t have the highest hopes for The French Connection, the production of which kept giving him more trouble than he was sure it was worth. He argued frequently with his bosses at 20th Century Fox, and couldn’t lock down the cast he wanted. The movie’s lead, Gene Hackman, was way down Friedkin’s wish list, and the two men butted heads a lot on the set because Hackman found the casual racism and violence of his character, “Popeye” Doyle, to be repugnant.
But Friedkin trusted in what had worked best in his previous half-decade of filmmaking, and he let the story take care of itself while he focused on the atmosphere. After four straight movies that were very chatty, Friedkin stripped Ernest Tidyman’s script down to incidental, semi-improvised chit-chat, keeping exposition to a minimum. Meanwhile, Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman acted like they were a documentary crew, shooting a vérité film on the fly. They stole shots that the New York City Film Commission would’ve never approved—including one of the most thrilling chases ever filmed, done without permits—and emphasized the drudgery of police work, showing Hackman’s Popeye freezing his ass off on the gray sidewalks of collapsing New York neighborhoods, watching his prey dine in warm, orange-hued supper clubs.
Friedkin’s approach paid off in two ways. In the long term, The French Connection has held up better than most of the decades of urban policiers that followed—with the same mix of wiretaps, shootouts, confidential informants, and crusty chiefs—because it treats all the trappings of narcotics investigations as incidental to the study of Popeye and his city. In the short term, The French Connection became Friedkin’s first hit. “The time is just right for an out and out thriller like this,” read the poster copy (which Friedkin hated). The public agreed—as did the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, which awarded the movie Best Picture, and Friedkin the Oscar for Best Director.
By the time all that happened, Blatty had finally worn Warner Bros. down, and got Friedkin to direct The Exorcist. The two had met briefly a few years earlier when Friedkin insulted Blatty’s script for a Blake Edwards project. Blatty admired the honesty of a young director who cost himself a job by being so blunt; Blatty’s instincts paid off, as Friedkin notched another Best Picture and Director nomination (losing to The Sting and George Roy Hill, respectively), and scored another blockbuster hit.
Like comedy, horror is a timeless genre when done well, and has a shorter shelf life when it’s too of-the-moment. The Exorcist continues to scare the crap out of people because while many of the story’s concerns are rooted in the 1970s—alluding to the decline in religious faith, the increased carnality of the younger generation, and the demands of single parenthood—it’s also about ancient evils, and the persistent anxiety of a mother watching her adolescent child transform into a creature she doesn’t recognize. Ellen Burstyn plays the mother, Christine MacNeil, a semi-famous actress and divorcée whose daughter Regan (Linda Blair) suffers from convulsions, contortions, and eruptions of profanity. Friedkin combines the docu-realism of The French Connection with some more overtly cinematic camera moves, though he tends to save those slow push-ins and pans for quieter, more ordinary moments—making sure that even the calmer parts of The Exorcist are imbued with menace. Working against Blatty’s wishes, Friedkin also tried to downplay the explanations for what’s happening to Regan, minimizing any suggestion that the two priests who come to help her (played by Jason Miller and Max von Sydow) have divine powers. Nevertheless, the last half-hour of The Exorcist becomes less mysterious and more confrontational, which may have been one reason audiences flocked to the film. It gnaws at viewers’ existential fears, then ends with thrill-ride catharsis.
Friedkin argued with Blatty during the making of The Exorcist, and fought with the studio over the score. He originally wanted Bernard Herrmann, then decided he didn’t like Herrmann’s attitude, so he called on his old friend Lalo Schifrin, and permanently alienated Schifrin when he fired the composer after a few days of recording. (He eventually settled on a mix of classical pieces and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” all supervised by Jack Nitzsche, who added some music of his own.) Friedkin tussled with the marketing department over the poster image, arguing for the subtle street scene that’s been the film’s signature image ever since. And after the film was released—originally in just a few theaters, and then wider once cities started seeing lines around the block—Friedkin called individual projectionists, threatening to pull the print if they weren’t using the proper illumination. After a while, being the man who directed The Exorcist became Friedkin’s full-time job, as he traveled the world, did interviews, and managed his wealth.
Friedkin’s main connection to actual filmmaking in the mid-1970s came from consulting with other directors in the New Hollywood crowd, both unofficially and in his partnership with his friends Bogdanovich and Coppola in “The Directors Company,” a collective created to allow the three men creative freedom in exchange for working within tight budgets. But Friedkin was underwhelmed by what all of his peers were up to. He didn’t see what was special about Steven Spielberg’s Jaws when he saw a pre-release cut. He didn’t think The Director’s Company should be involved with Star Wars, a project brought to them by Coppola, George Lucas’ mentor. He was unimpressed with Coppola’s The Conversation, made under the auspices of the TDC deal, and he urged Bogdanovich not to follow up the successful TDC film Paper Moon with an adaptation of Henry James’ Daisy Miller. (Friedkin was actually right about that last one.)
In the end, Friedkin never made a movie with The Director’s Company. His only film from that era is a feature-length interview with director Fritz Lang, who talks about his early German films while Friedkin prods him with questions about the themes of Metropolis and M, and asks why Lang was so preoccupied with murderers. (“With social evils,” Lang corrects. “Not with murderers.”) Lang has a lot to say about working during the rise of the Nazis, and it’s clear the two men have more in common than may be immediately evident, from Friedkin’s interest in villainy to Lang’s distaste for producers. But as a film, the Lang documentary is nothing special, even though Friedkin does try to lend it a little visual kick by shooting in black and white, and by occasionally changing angles so his own shadow fills the side of the screen next to Lang’s face, noir-style.
Re-energized from his time off and from rubbing shoulders with his filmmaking heroes, Friedkin set out to make what he was sure would be his masterpiece: an adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel Le Salaire De La Peur, which had been previously made by Henri-Georges Clouzot into the classic 1953 film The Wages Of Fear. Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green deployed an ambitious structure for their remake, beginning the movie with four prologues that introduced four desperate men from different cultures and different social stations, who all end up stranded in a squalid Central American town run by an oil company. When the oil company suffers a disaster that threatens to crush the local economy, the four men risk their lives (and make a grab for a life-changing payday) by transporting leaky sticks of dynamite across bumpy, muddy mountain roads.
Friedkin called the movie Sorcerer, after the name painted on one of the cargo trucks, and Paramount released it in summer 1977 as PG-rated adventure-thriller aimed at a broad audience. Sorcerer tanked, badly. The name confused people, critics slammed Friedkin’s arrogance at remaking a masterpiece (as well as his arrogance just generally), and in the summer of Star Wars, audiences had lost interest in the kind of mature, unsentimental films that New Hollywood had success with in the first half of the 1970s. When Friedkin made The French Connection and The Exorcist, he was actively trying to scrap his reputation as an arty filmmaker, but with Sorcerer, he used the clout of two consecutive hits to make an enormously expensive picture that was uncompromising to a fault: a bleak, grimy drama about human degradation, with a moody Tangerine Dream score and no real stars but Roy Scheider as one of the drivers (in a role that was supposed to be played by Steve McQueen, until Friedkin balked at McQueen’s fairly reasonable demands).
Over the decades, Sorcerer has developed a reputation as one of the 1970s’ forgotten masterpieces, and cinephiles stumping for a proper reappraisal finally led to a restored, digitally remastered version getting a limited theatrical run and a Blu-ray release. Now that it’s been rescued from obscurity, Sorcerer can take its rightful place among Friedkin’s four or five best films. It’s hardly flawless—the action takes too long to kick into gear, and none of the main characters are all that well-developed, even with the long prologues—but the second hour of Sorcerer is about as good as suspense filmmaking gets. Friedkin shoots situations that look impossible—trucks sliding through muddy wilderness trails, trucks trying to cross suspension bridges, etc.—and gives them his usual docu-realism, such that it seems that at any minute, the actors themselves could die. And as with The French Connection and The Exorcist, Sorcerer is about situational ethics and choices. Friedkin and Green create a world in which nothing the heroes do really matters, because corporations, governments, organized crime, and rebel militias hold all the power over whether they thrive. In those circumstances, the best anyone can do is to survive the day, and win small victories.
After Sorcerer flopped, Friedkin was anxious to show he still knew how to make movies that audiences wanted to see, so he jumped onto a project that John Frankenheimer had abandoned: The Brink’s Job, a light action-comedy about a real-life million-dollar heist pulled off in 1950 by a motley Boston gang of petty thieves. Friedkin tapped Green again to rewrite the existing script, and the result is like a lighthearted, less-intense version of Sorcerer. It’s another movie about scrappy low-income folks willing to do almost anything to get rich, albeit with fewer sweaty grimaces and more wry smiles. The Brink’s Job didn’t win back the critics, and didn’t do much business, but it’s a well-made, highly entertaining movie that deserves a better reputation. Friedkin has a lot of fun photographing piles of money, illustrating how difficult it is to count and store large amounts of cash; Peter Falk has a lot of fun as the heist’s sharp-eyed, good-natured mastermind, who’s grown accustomed to taking whatever he wants.
In his memoir, Friedkin describes Falk’s lead performance as “labored,” but that’s way too harsh. Falk’s a little more of a character in The Brink’s Job than he is in his TV series Columbo, or his collaborations with John Cassavetes, but he gives a sweet, winningly optimistic take on an opportunistic-hustler character who’s just clever enough to realize that venerable American institutions like the Brink’s armored-car company are as half-assed in their everyday operations as he and his fellow crooks. The cast is first-rate (it includes Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, Paul Sorvino, Gena Rowlands, and Warren Oates, the lattermost of whom has a powerful emotional breakdown late in the film), and the Oscar-nominated art direction (headed up by Dean Tavoularis) does a marvelous job of making actual mid-1970s Boston streets look like the late 1940s. Like Sorcerer, The Brink’s Job falls short when it comes to developing a story that grips from start to finish, and the action/suspense sequences in this film are nowhere close to Friedkin’s best, save for some tense moments during the heist itself. But after three straight movies that hopped around the globe, Friedkin found a good groove by settling into one small patch of Boston, and showing a brighter side to the dingy bars and crumbling neighborhoods that were his primary cinematic habitat throughout the 1970s.
Friedkin scurried back to the gloom for 1980’s Cruising, which brought his decade full circle by combining The French Connection with The Boys In The Band. Returning to an even grimmer, more hellish New York than the one he shot for The French Connection, Friedkin plunged deep into the subculture of gay leather bars, casting Al Pacino as a uniformed cop named Steve Burns who goes undercover to find out who’s been butchering gay men in the S&M scene. Like The Boys In The Band, Cruising was controversial in the gay community because it mostly makes homosexuality look inherently seedy. But also like The Boys In The Band, Cruising is franker about the realities of gay life than just about any other mainstream entertainment of the time. Cruising deals with the police harassment of drag queens, and while it does make gay bars look like nightmarish dens of iniquity, it also acknowledges gay sexuality in a way movies still rarely do. Plus it depicts its gay characters as strong, macho types who take care of themselves, not as mincing sissies. Cruising is still offensive in the way it exoticizes and sensationalizes a subset of a larger community—while rarely showing that larger community—but as is often the case with movies that offend audiences, over time, the offensiveness itself has become just one piece of the picture.
The bigger issue with Cruising is that it just doesn’t make that much sense. Partly that’s the fault of Pacino, who never really gets a handle on his character, playing him as a more passive version of Frank Serpico. Partly that’s the fault of the MPAA, which forced Friedkin to cut—by his estimation—more than half an hour of explicit material from the leather-bar scenes, some of which were plot-bearing. And partly that’s the fault of Friedkin, who wrote the screenplay based on a Gerald Walker novel and a handful of contemporaneous news stories, and seemed to fall so in love with his research that he lost track of how it all fit together. (Indicative of what a mess Cruising is: When Pacino saw a pre-release version, he was surprised and dismayed that Friedkin had cut the film in such a way that his character comes off entirely differently from what they’d discussed, and from what was in the script.)
Still, from moment to moment, Cruising is often a very good movie, with a palpable sense of anxiety and decay. Friedkin and cinematographer James Contner give the scuzzier parts of New York a dark allure, and the punk-filled soundtrack captures the rough energy of the times. Leaving aside the messy aspects of Cruising, the movie excels whenever it focuses on one man, left alone in a world of “scumbags,” trying to survive to the end of his mission by trusting no one—and by becoming untrustworthy himself.
|1.5||Deal Of The Century||1983|
|4.5||To Live And Die In L.A.||1985|
|3||The Twilight Zone: “Nightcrawlers”||1985|
After the Cruising boondoggle, Friedkin took a long break, then followed the Sorcerer-to-Brink’s Job pattern by making a comedy: Deal Of The Century, starring Chevy Chase and Gregory Hines as jaded arms dealers and Sigourney Weaver as a colleague’s angry widow. Produced by Norman Lear’s former partner, Bud Yorkin, and written by Paul Brickman (whose own directorial debut, Risky Business, came out the same year), Deal Of The Century has all the pieces in place to be at least a solid film. Instead, it’s absolutely awful. The pacing is logy, the jokes are sparse (and strangely broad and unfunny when they do appear), and none of the actors seem to have any idea what to do with their characters, who are neither sympathetic nor all that satirical. Deal Of The Century has enduring value only as a fairly detailed depiction of the 1980s arms trade—including a depiction of an early version of a drone plane—but otherwise it’s a complete dud, with none of the sense of realism that was Friedkin’s specialty. Deal Of The Century plays like Friedkin’s dispiritingly out-of-touch attempt at making what he imagined “a 1980s hit movie” to be.
It didn’t take long for Friedkin to rebound, though, and he did it by making what he imagined a hit 1980s movie should be. The 1985 actioner To Live And Die In L.A. is like a West Coast update of The French Connection: another tough-as-nails movie about urban pursuit, in which motion and location take precedence over plot and character. William Petersen stars as Secret Service agent Richard Chance, who has a personal vendetta against counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), and drags his by-the-book new partner (John Pankow) into a scheme to commit a real crime as part of an unauthorized undercover operation. Friedkin borrowed the vivid color schemes and propulsive synthesized soundtracks of the then-hot TV series Miami Vice—the soundtrack provided by Wang Chung in this case—and his dialogue is punchy and pungent in the manner of the Stallone/Schwarzenegger-era action movies. At times, To Live And Die In L.A. feels like the nexus point for every crime picture from 15 years before and 15 years afterward, from the non-glamorous location shooting to the unflappable heroes and villains spouting lines like, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”
But Friedkin makes the film his own, by focusing on the offbeat details of the case—such as what it takes to make convincing counterfeit $20 bills—and by allowing his hero to be a raging asshole, akin to Popeye Doyle. (Petersen appreciated the chance Friedkin took on him when he was still a relative unknown, and later repaid the favor by bringing Friedkin on to direct some episodes of his hit TV procedural C.S.I.) Working with a fairly low budget and relying heavily on grip-and-rip cinematographer Robby Müller, Friedkin made one of the ballsiest, most bullshit-free action movies of a bombastic era, with scarcely a chase or a fight that isn’t creatively staged, or that follows a predictable path. To Live And Die In L.A. also doubles as an indictment of how the images of wealth and muscle that were dominating the 1980s had a rotten, phony core. The movie’s opening titles feature a drawing of a palm tree that looks like a gunshot wound, which succinctly sums up this movie.
Shortly before To Live And Die In L.A. came out, a Friedkin-directed segment of The Twilight Zone revival aired on CBS, and impressed some critics as the best work he’d done since The Exorcist. It wasn’t—Sorcerer, The Brink’s Job, and the already-completed-at-the-time To Live And Die In L.A. are all much better—but “Nightcrawlers” does belong in Friedkin’s proper filmography in a way his earlier work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his later work on C.S.I. does not, in that it isn’t some anonymous work-for-hire job. If anything, it’s a link of sorts between the filmed plays that launched Friedkin’s career and the ones he went on to make in the 2000s. Philip DeGuere’s teleplay—based on a Robert R. McCammon short story—takes place almost entirely in one diner, which is visited by a disturbed Vietnam vet named Price (Scott Paulin) with the power to physically manifest the images in his mind. The problem is that Price has horrible nightmares about what he did in the war, which he then imposes on his fellow diners. Before that happens, Friedkin lets the intensity build, slowly and purposefully, making a small restaurant look smaller as he drives home the idea of Vietnam as the bad dream America can’t shake off.
At the least, “Nightcrawlers” looks like The Exorcist next to Friedkin’s bizarre 1990 horror film The Guardian, about a well-to-do young married couple still adjusting to a new life in Los Angeles with a new baby when they find out that their nanny Camilla (played by Jenny Seagrove) is a child-sacrificing tree-demon. Or they eventually find that out. To fill up the hour between the introduction of the premise and the point where the parents finally face down Camilla, Friedkin and screenwriters Stephen Volk and Dan Greenburg (the latter of whom also wrote the novel on which The Guardian is based) keep coming up with reasons for the nanny to face various threats while in the woods, where she can command the trees to ensnare and impale her enemies. There’s some kitsch appeal to The Guardian’s overall nuttiness, but aside from the Exorcist-like font in the opening credits, nothing here feels like Friedkin’s work. Any straight-to-video horror hack could’ve made The Guardian, which has almost no energy until its last 15 minutes, and never exhibits the command of visual storytelling that should be expected from the director of The French Connection and Sorcerer. (It’s telling that the only two Friedkin films that go undiscussed in his memoir are Deal Of The Century and this one.)
What’s especially disappointing about The Guardian is that a few years before, Friedkin made a very good film that didn’t come out in the United States until 1992—and even then, barely got a release. Rampage was a deeply personal picture for Friedkin, inspired by his evolving feelings on the death penalty, and his conviction that some people deserve to die, and that if bleeding-heart scolds would just get out of the way, some order could be restored in a violent world riddled with evil. In Rampage, Michael Biehn plays a kindly prosecutor (still shaken by making the decision to switch off life support for his comatose young daughter a few years back) who struggles with whether he can follow through on his decision to seek the death penalty in the case of a boyish serial killer who drinks his victims’ blood. The film poses a series of questions: What is justice? What is insanity? Where does the ultimate responsibility for a murder lie? Is there any good left in the universe? And while Friedkin (who also wrote the screenplay, based on a William Wood novel) presents opposing views throughout, he also stacks the deck in favor of family, faith, and capital punishment.
Stylistically, Rampage is closer to The Guardian than to To Live And Die In L.A. It looks a little like an educational film made by a local church, and it’s heavy-handed in a way no Friedkin movie had been before (though this became a more common mode for him in the 1990s). But there’s a rawness and passion to Rampage that’s cruelly effective, goosed by an Ennio Morrricone score that sounds like it belongs in a giallo thriller, and by Friedkin’s willingness to push the audience’s buttons—showing kids in peril, showing psychiatrists conspiring to confuse jurors, and showing the killer being given the freedom to call and write letters to his “enemies.” When Friedkin is off his game, his movies come out flat and dull. Rampage is never dull.
|4||12 Angry Men||1997|
|2.5||Rules Of Engagement||2000|
Toward the end of the 1970s, Friedkin says he was given the opportunity to buy a one-third stake in the Boston Celtics, but he turned it down, because even though he’s a lifelong basketball fan, he decided the NBA was a terrible investment. Friedkin tells this story in The Friedkin Connection as an example of one of the many times he failed to see the potential in something that could’ve paid off big. But it’s also an example of how easily Friedkin seems to make friends with all kinds of people. In his memoir, he’s disarmingly honest—or at least he seems so—about how disagreeable he can be when he’s making a movie. He’s evidently also charming, with a broad spectrum of interests he can talk about with the people he meets. Nearly every project Friedkin writes about in The Friedkin Connection begins with him at the gym, or out to dinner with friends, or at a party.
It was at a party where Friedkin met Sherry Lansing, one of the hottest producers in Hollywood in the 1980s, who later—after marrying Friedkin in 1991—became the head of Paramount. It raised some eyebrows, then, when Friedkin’s next three feature films were released through Paramount, though the director insists Lansing had nothing to do with any of of those green-lights. The 1994 basketball drama Blue Chips happened in part due to Friedkin’s basketball connections, which allowed him to bring in Bob Cousy as the athletic director of a fictional West Coast college, Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway as in-demand basketball prospects, and Larry Bird, Bob Knight, Rick Pitino, Dick Vitale, and many others as themselves. Working from a script by Ron Shelton (who also produced, but didn’t want to direct), Friedkin sought to bring some of his famed docu-realism to the story of a successful college basketball coach (played by a suitably fiery Nick Nolte) who agrees to let the university’s boosters buy him some star players after a succession of down years.
Frankly, Shelton’s story is one of his thinnest—at least in comparison to the likes of Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, and Tin Cup—with a plot that goes in a straight line from “coach won’t cheat” to “coach cheats” to “coach feels lousy about cheating.” The film is at its best when it’s dealing with the particulars of how the cheating works, with the coach presuming he won’t be directly affected by any of the payoffs, until a player asks whether his mom will be able to keep the job a booster got for her if he decides to quit the team. There isn’t enough to Blue Chips, but Friedkin does a lot with what’s there, bringing dynamism to the basketball sequences through quick cuts and fast camera moves, and veracity to the scenes where well-paid men gather in cramped university offices and stew over how their fates are determined not just by how good a bunch of 20-year-olds are at playing a game, but whether those kids are motivated enough by the game itself. Friedkin shoots all this as though he just happened to be in the room—or the gym—as it happened. The action never feels overly choreographed.
The same can’t be said of Friedkin’s 1995 thriller Jade, though the genre itself is partly at fault there. Made during the heyday of the erotic thriller, with a screenplay by the genre’s hottest writer, Joe Eszterhas (though Friedkin reportedly rewrote the script so much that Eszterhas wanted his name taken off), Jade is one of those nonsensical twist-a-paloozas that were so common in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And as with films like Basic Instinct, Final Analysis, Sliver, and so on and so on, Jade is all about the sensation of the moment, with the characters’ behavior determined by how much the director and writer mean to jerk the audience around.
David Caruso plays a San Francisco district attorney investigating a high-profile murder case that overlaps with a clandestine kinky-sex ring, involving several powerful people and his best friend’s wife (played by Linda Fiorentino). Whenever Friedkin sticks with the chases and suspense sequences the plot provides, Jade is actually pretty good, as Friedkin shifts easily from handheld to SteadiCam and from low angles to close-ups, crafting one of his best, most intuitive hybrids of Alfred Hitchcock and documentary filmmaking. But Jade stops dead during every gratuitous sex scene—and there are a lot of those—and during every scene where overly earnest men and women sit in well-appointed rooms and try to make sense of the story. From the excessive dubbing to the way Friedkin tries to pose Fiorentino so she always looks like a 1940s glamor-queen, Jade always feels artificial, which is a mode Friedkin doesn’t do well.
Well, with one minor exception: Jailbreakers, an episode of Showtime’s Rebel Highway series, which saw biggish-name writers, directors, and stars making low-budget original films that used titles from the library of B-movie legend Samuel Z. Arkoff. Friedkin’s film, written by Debra Hill, casts Shannen Doherty as a popular cheerleader from a good family who gets addicted to committing crimes with a local bad boy. Jailbreakers is phony by design, but fun in a feverish, nasty way, and way more entertaining than Jade.
A few years after Jailbreakers, Friedkin returned to Showtime for an update of 12 Angry Men, a classic of the live-television era that had been performed onstage around the world since its first broadcast, and was filmed masterfully in 1957 by Sidney Lumet. The original writer, Reginald Rose, updated the dialogue for the 1990s, and Friedkin assembled a powerhouse, multi-ethnic cast: Courtney B. Vance, William Petersen, Hume Cronyn, Edward James Olmos, George C. Scott, Ossie Davis, Tony Danza, Mykelti Williamson, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, and James Gandolfini. Jack Lemmon plays the stubborn “Juror #8,” who refuses to join his peers in voting guilty in the trial of a Hispanic teen accused of stabbing his father to death. Friedkin takes a different approach than Lumet, staging the main deliberations like the rehearsals for a play, with very loose blocking and handheld cameras, then varying the rhythm with the side conversations and monologues.
The 1997 12 Angry Men is less tightly controlled than the Lumet version, and while it isn’t better, it still works like gangbusters. The material is timeless, the cast plays well off of one another, and Friedkin doesn’t impose himself too much. He dramatizes differences in ideology by putting people in a room together and having them hash it out fairly, with little of the sense of righteous fury that had crept into his films. Jade represented a continuation of the rightward political turn Friedkin took with Rampage, with lines of dialogue that take potshots at Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown, and with Friedkin establishing the hero’s basic decency at the start by showing him praying at a Catholic church. Even the preponderance of naked bodies—some of them grotesquely mutilated—doesn’t counterbalance the moralistic tone in Jade, or the seething disgust at weaselly politicians. That same disgust manifests even more strongly in Friedkin’s unexpectedly controversial 2000 film Rules Of Engagement, about soldiers who make tough decisions in combat situations, then have to answer to ass-covering bureaucrats.
In Rules Of Engagement, Samuel L. Jackson plays Marine colonel Terry Childers, who takes command of the extraction of an American ambassador from Yemen, where terrorist snipers and an aggressive public demonstration in the streets provoke the troops into firing into the crowd, outraging the world. Tommy Lee Jones plays mediocre JAG lawyer Hays Hodges, who agrees to help his old friend Childers beat the charges, by attempting to prove in court that Yemeni citizens were shooting at the embassy from below. Stephen Gaghan’s script (from a story by former Secretary Of The Navy James Webb) is an awkward mash-up of Aaron Sorkin and Oliver Stone, and Friedkin doesn’t exhibit the tightest control of the material, particularly allowing the politician characters (played by Ben Kingsley and Bruce Greenwood) to chew the scenery as the hiss-worthy villains.
Rules Of Engagement drew protests because of the riot sequences, which lean on the stereotype of the faceless, out-of-control Arab mob. But those scenes are some of the most exciting and pertinent in the film, conveying how hard it is to interpret acts of rage and violence during the heat of the moment. And Friedkin and Gaghan don’t shy away from showing the aftermath of the firefight, sending Hodges to Yemen to look at a hospital ward full of mutilated kids. (Friedkin does some of his best work in a scene where Childers and Hodges wrestle with each other: two worn-out warriors at odds over some bad choices.) Like Rampage, Rules Of Engagement has a point of view, but still embraces the debate, asking what responsibility the United States government holds for what happens in an unpredictable combat situation.
Rules Of Engagement was critically derided, but it made some money (some, not a lot), and earned Friedkin a shot at making The Hunted, which to date has been his last mainstream Hollywood movie. And it’s one hell of a movie, too—even though not enough people seemed to recognize that back in 2003. Tommy Lee Jones reunites with Friedkin to play L.T. Bonham, an outdoorsman with a side gig teaching U.S. military special operatives how to stalk and kill. Benicio Del Toro plays Aaron Hallam, a graduate of the Bonham school, who goes rogue after a mission in Kosovo where he sees allied bombs killing as many civilians as the enemy did. An unhinged Hallam disappears into the American wilderness and starts slaughtering hunters, believing them to be agents of the U.S. government who’ve been sent to take him out. Bonham is brought in to track him down, with the help of FBI agent Abby Durrell, played by Connie Nielsen.
A lot of the middling-to-negative reviews of The Hunted at the time mentioned that there isn’t much to the movie, which is sort of true. Once Bonham gets the assignment to bring Hallam in, The Hunted becomes an extended chase, with little dialogue, and some implausible, superhuman survivalist moves on behalf of both men. But the minimalism makes The Hunted terrific. Once again, Friedkin—working from a team-written screenplay, though there’s barely enough plot or conversation for that to matter—grapples with questions of how far a person should go to exact justice, and who’s ultimately responsible for those choices. But rather than indulging in long conversations about all that, Friedkin follows the model of The French Connection and To Live And Die In L.A., hitting the streets and stepping on the gas. The difference is that The Hunted mostly consists of foot-chases, and moves from forests to cities to greenspaces within cities, treating the world as one big wilderness. The idea here is that there’s no difference between battlefields and public parks. When society makes it possible for others to murder on their behalf, it’s only a matter of time before those killers come home, still amped-up and raring to go.
The way critics and film buffs failed to rally around The Hunted was a shame, but in the years since, Friedkin’s reputation among cinephiles has improved, thanks in part to DVD and Blu-ray re-releases of his best films (often accompanied by thoughtful Friedkin commentary tracks and interviews), and thanks in part to Friedkin reinventing himself as an independent filmmaker, making intense, grotesque adaptations of plays by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts. Their collaboration began with 2006’s Bug, which Friedkin became determined to make after he saw it performed onstage, with Michael Shannon in the lead. Friedkin persuaded his reluctant producers to let him cast Shannon again, as a paranoiac named Peter who makes friends with a depressed druggie named Agnes (Ashley Judd) in a crummy Oklahoma motel. Peter initially wins Agnes over with his kindness, and because he’s a big man who seems qualified to protect her from her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.). But after they sleep together for the first time, Peter starts freaking out about the microscopic insects he insists are are eating them both alive.
After a successful debut at Cannes in 2006, Bug was released widely by Lionsgate in 2007, marketed as a new horror film from the director of The Exorcist. The strategy “worked,” inasmuch as Bug made back its low budget fairly quickly. But Bug takes a little more mental preparation than a typical horror film, which means Lionsgate’s tactics didn’t do the movie any favors with audiences who might’ve liked it more if they hadn’t felt they’d been conned. Bug does get violent and disturbing in its last half-hour, when Peter and Agnes start cutting each other open to get the bugs out, and in the middle stretch of the film, Bug is actually somewhat Exorcist-like, in that Agnes watches with concern and confusion as this man she likes slowly gets crazier. (The situation also resembles The Hunted a little, and “Nightcrawlers” as well, in that Peter claims to have been changed by his time in the army.) But mostly, Bug is about watching how fearless and focused Shannon and Judd can be in a scene—not to mention Connick, who should really do more movies—and how Friedkin plays to the strengths of an already-claustrophobic play by closing it up even more, using a lot of close-ups while having the actors press into each other’s personal space. The audience feels caged in with these lunatics, penned in by pest-strips, exposed water heaters, and tinfoil.
The performances also keep Friedkin’s next Letts adaptation, Killer Joe, from being unwatchably unpleasant. A pre-“McConaissance” Matthew McConaughey is icily charismatic in Killer Joe as Joe Cooper, a Dallas police detective who rents out his services as a hitman to a dysfunctional family who need the insurance money that would come from Joe bumping off their absent matriarch. Because they can’t front Joe’s fee, the family provides “a retainer,” in the form of its youngest member, the dim, virginal Dottie (played by Juno Temple). The scenes between Joe and Dottie are the best parts of Killer Joe, with the deeply corrupt Joe treating Dottie like some ideal of Texas purity he can simultaneously defend and defile, while Dottie enjoys having such a powerful, handsome man pay attention to her. But Killer Joe was Letts’ first play, and there’s a show-offy quality to the way it wallows in sex, violence, and the squalid lives of the underclass. The dialogue is lively, but the story doesn’t earn its disgusting climactic scene, where Joe beats up Gina Gershon’s duplicitous Sharla, then forces her to fellate a piece of fried chicken. Give credit to Friedkin for not flinching from Killer Joe’s serrated edges, but the film isn’t as purposeful as Bug.
It might seem odd that a filmmaker who got his start in documentaries spent so much of his career making filmed plays, but Friedkin has always understood that the immediacy of live theater is its own kind of journalism, in that it presents real human behavior, in real time. His filmed plays have aspired to that kind of freshness. And with rare exceptions (Rampage and Jailbreakers, mainly), Friedkin’s films are better when they’re more real, which is why Bug trumps Killer Joe.
Friedkin doesn’t make any great claims for his own work. In his memoir, he says there are only a handful of real auteurs in cinema, and that he isn’t one of them. He says film is too collaborative a medium to give directors all the credit; besides, he feels even his best movies have been too inconsistent. Yet even the hack directors—and Friedkin is definitely not one of those—develop skill sets and techniques that eventually coalesce into recurring themes. Friedkin figured out early on that he was good at shooting on location, as quickly and from-the-gut as possible, and he’s been drawn throughout his career to rule-breaking men of action, and hasn’t been afraid to show the sometimes-lethal damage they can cause. The characters and Friedkin’s preferred method of sketching them are connected. Friedkin watches closely, knowing that in any adrenalized situation, people make mistakes. That’s where their humanity lies.