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The Essentials: The 5 Best William Friedkin Films

The Essentials: The 5 Best William Friedkin Films

The decent opening weekend for the NC-17 “Killer Joe” should be celebrated for a number of reasons, but perhaps most notably, it marks something of a comeback for director William Friedkin. The helmer was, for a brief period in the 1970s, the most powerful filmmaker in Hollywood, but a series of critical and commercial flops after “The Exorcist” saw his stock drop quickly, and while there were a few quiet gems, the quality of his work tended to be closer to sub-“Basic Instinct” erotic thriller “Jade” (which Friedkin has said is one of his favorite of his films, curiously), or tree-rape horror “The Guardian,” than to his breakout films.

But 2007’s “Bug,” with Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, based on the Tracy Letts play, was a serious return to form, and that has continued along with “Killer Joe,” another collaboration with the playwright that boasts a starry cast and a dark, mean sense of humor. It’s a terrific little film that features some of the most unforgettable scenes of the year. With “Killer Joe” finally in theaters, it seemed like a good time to go back and pick out the filmmaker’s essential movies worth tracking down. Check them out below, and if you want to fight in the corner for a film we didn’t mention, you can do so in the comments section below. And if you want more Friedkin himself, check out our extensive interview with filmmaker right here.

“The French Connection” (1971)
William Friedkin started off his career with a number of mostly forgotten pictures, but 1970’s “The Boys In The Band” put him on the map, and after Howard Hawks, the father of his then-girlfriend, told him he should “make a good chase. Make one better than anyone’s ever done,” the helmer took on the film adaptation of Robin Moore‘s non-fiction novel “The French Connection.” And the result was one of the best cop flicks ever made, and features a car chase that was pretty much the most thrilling even captured on camera up to that point, vaulting Friedkin to A-list in no time. Following narcotics detectives Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider) as they try to crack a French heroin-smuggling ring in New York, it might embellish the plot a little for the sake of the thrill-ride, but its documentary-style realism (inspired by Costa-Gavras‘ “Z“), full of handheld cameras and Friedkin’s terrific attention to detail, reinvigorated the genre. While the plotting might suffer these days due to it being ripped off countless times in the last 40 years, it’s the character work from Hackman and Scheider that really stands out, making for complex protagonists that never fall into stereotypes. Friedkin’s breakout film is is many ways still his finest film to date.

“The Exorcist” (1973)
In a world of tentpoles and franchises, it’s almost unthinkable that a firmly R-rated horror film (one in which a young girl masturbates with a crucifix and says the line “Your mother sucks cocks in hell,” no less) could be not only be a giant hit, but rank among the ten biggest grossers in history. And an top of those achievements, “The Exorcist” remains a stone-cold horror classic as well. Starting off as Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) confronts the demon Pazazu in Iraq, we’re soon halfway across the world, as famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) notices horrific changes in her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Before long, doctors start to take more seriously the idea that Regan might, as she claims, be the Devil herself, and Father Karras, whose faith is falling apart, along with Father Merrin, a renowned exorcist, are brought in to drive the demon away. Tapping into primal fears — about our children, not to mention his satanic majesty himself — Friedkin brings the same realism that turned the cop genre on its head to the horror film, particularly thanks to a fine cast (Burstyn, Von Sydow and Jason Miller), and the methods that Friedkin used to freak them out on set, including firing a gun mid-scene. And it’s because of that realism that the film is so absolutely terrifying; visceral and painful and searing, even after years of imitation by lesser films. It’s worth noting that you should stick with the original, rather than 2000’s “Version You’ve Never Seen.”

“Sorcerer” (1977)
When you have a hit of the size of “The Exorcist,” you pretty much get to do whatever you want. For Friedkin, he decided to remake one of the best-loved thrillers in cinema history, Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s “The Wages Of Fear,” with a then-massive $22 million budget, and a lengthy, globe-trotting production schedule (trumpeted in the trailer as lasting two years, in five countries, on four continents). And unsurprisingly, it was attacked as a classic example of directorial hubris on release, and flopped, in part because of the release of “Star Wars” a month earlier. But the film has had its critical reputation revived over the years (although legal issues are currently preventing screenings) and deservedly so. The plot remains much the same as the original: four international nomads, led by Roy Scheider, hiding out in South America are tasked with the potentially lucrative (and possibly fatal) job of driving trucks containing highly unstable explosive nitroglycerin across the mountains, in order to quell a fire at an oil well. It’s ten minutes shorter than Clouzot’s film, but the narrative does feel a little more languid, Friedkin fleshing out the backstories of his protagonists, and it’s less lean and honed than the original. But it also helps to make the film a slightly different, more textured beast, while Friedkin handles the white-knuckles suspense sequences with all of his directorial tools, not least the astonishing suspension bridge sequence. And although the two fell out on set, Scheider (who was far from Friedkin’s first choice for the part, the director having wanted Steve McQueen) actually gives a performance that might be his finest. Hopefully, the legal tangle will be sorted soon, and we can get to see a shiny new version before too long. If nothing else, we’d like to hear Tangerine Dream‘s pulsing electronic score (one of the first of its kind) on big, theater sized speakers.  

“Cruising” (1980)
Uncompromisingly nasty, full of lurid sleaze,  gruesome and cynical. These are some of the plaudits for William Friedkin’s latest, “Killer Joe,” but they also read like the pejoratives against Friedkin’s infamous ninth feature-length effort “Cruising.” To be fair, they are wildly different films. His latest is a deep-fried pitch-black comedy, while his 1980 effort is a largely humorless and sordid look at a sub-culture the filmmaker possibly knew nothing about (and yes, it sure as shit looks like that on the surface). Starring a hirsute Al Pacino, “Cruising” centers on an undercover cop (Pacino) who infiltrates the New York gay scene to find a serial killer that’s been targeting homosexual men. The problem is that the film’s deeply questionable social politics are queasy at best and the gay scene in New York is depicted like an depraved morass where S&M freaks and hedonistic sex fiends go to engage in all kinds of scuzzy and unspeakable sexual acts. Essentially any film that was looking to spoof the leather-bound, biker gays (see The Blue Oyster bar in “Police Academy” for one), would need not look any further than Friedkin’s misguided look at gay culture which most critics dubbed homophobic and hateful. It’s been reviled in many circles and called deeply misunderstood by others. And while it’s hard to apologize or advocate for the film, what the picture does possess is a dark, seedy and discomforting sense of dread; both from the Pacino cop character having to endure dank cum-stained dungeon-like bars and this killer that’s lurking out there somewhere in the shadows. Yes, “Cruising” is kind of ridiculous, but its fucked-up aesthetics and striking sense of anxiety and apprehension that reflects back on the viewers own unease. Had it just been a serial-killer film set in begrimed sections of New York in the ’80s, maybe “Cruising” might not be as notorious as it still is today.

“To Live And Die In L.A.” (1985)
While dated and arguably slightly hampered by its ‘80s-era DNA — a corny/awesome score by Wang Chung, cartoony Day-Glo-ish titles, holistic slickness, etc. —  William Friedkin’s “To Live And Die In L.A” is nevertheless a classic crime thriller from the Reagan years. It’s hard to conceive of a time when “CSI” actor William Petersen was a sex-symbol-like lead, but that’s exactly the role he inhabits here, full of cocky swagger. He plays Richard Chance, a United States Secret Service agent with the Treasury Department that becomes vengeful and unhinged when his partner of 10 years and best friend  (Michael Greene) dies investigating a counterfeiting scheme three days before he’s set to retire. With a new partner forced onto him (John Pankow), and consumed by revenge, the already morally-questionable Petersen — who employs an parolee/informant (Darlanne Fluegel) using a mix of sex and extortion to bend her to his will — finds his code of ethics beginning to erode as he will stop at nothing to catch the expert counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe).  And while more than enough to be good dramatic fodder,  what transpires in the film’s surprising and twisty third act is much more of a personal tale of revenge and ultimately becomes an surprisingly inspired examination of the thin line between cops and crooks, moral decay and the consequences of ends justifying the means policing. Perhaps most significantly, “To Die And Live In L.A” holds an important spot in Friedkin’s oeuvre. After his perceived string of ‘70s bombs — films we’ve listed out here that turn out to be rather great in retrospect  — ‘L.A.’ was seen as a major comeback film for the director. Unfortunately, it was also the last good film Friedkin made for the better part of two decades.

— Rodrigo Perez, Oliver Lyttelton

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