Director Spotlight: William Friedkin

May 21, 2007

Funny how a filmmaker can have the Master of Horror label permanently stamped on them for just one movie. While a talented director with a considerable list of accomplishments, William Friedkin will be forever tied to The Exorcist. This is both a curse (everything he's made since has been compared unfavorably to it) and a blessing (the ongoing popularity of that one film has given him longevity, as he has found work even after making a string of box office flops). He is an American director who has made better films than The Exorcist more than once in his career, even though that split pea-gusher will forever be his most famous contribution to cinema.

May 21 - William Friedkin

William FriedkinHe didn't start out as a horror filmmaker, or as a genre director at all. In fact, he began directing for television, then an unassuming career, with small films that gained critical praise (or indifference) but didn't point to anything like a film legacy… then The French Connection (1971) happened. The film, a semi-fictional take on how a reckless, racist, no-nonsense cop named "Popeye Doyle" (Gene Hackman) takes on a powerful druglord (Fernando Rey), was an exciting, brutal breakthrough for cop movies. Although What's New, Pussycat? technically had the first major auto pursuit scene, Connection is considered to have the first real car chase, one that is quaint now but was a chair-grabber back in 1971. Most importantly, this character-driven cop drama was harsh and unapologetic in depicting the corrupt ways Doyle got the job done and Hackman's performance (which got him a Best Actor Oscar) is as riveting as Friedkin's direction. In all honestly, I think the sequel, John Frankenheimer's French Connection II (also starring Hackman) is even better, but the first film certainly deserves its classic status.

Friedkin's direction on The French Connection won an Oscar, as did the film itself, for Best Picture. With all of his films, Friedkin's unwavering style, to let his camera show the characters at their best and worst, in an unflinching, non-judgmental manner, makes his works fascinating. He rarely manipulates the audiences' feelings regarding what they're watching. Instead, he makes the tone and material as intense as possible, depicts the (usually) darker side of humankind and makes the audience spectators, even voyeurs. It's up to the audience to come to terms with how they feel about what they're seeing (rather than music cues assisting them) and Friedkin doesn't make it easy for them.

The Exorcist PosterHis next film, The Exorcist (1973), certainly wasn't easy for a lot of people to deal with. Most of what you've heard about the film is true. Yes, people screamed, panicked, vomited and (in one case) died while watching the film in theaters. Billy Graham declared it as truly evil and people picketed theaters. By the time the film ends, you've seen a little girl violate herself onscreen in countless ways, and just about everything that was taboo in 1973 got splashed onscreen in a green, goopy spray of cinematic defiance. Is the film effective? You betcha. People of all ages and races lined up around the block, America got on an exorcism kick (books and rip-off movies followed in herds) and the film became one of the top grossers of all time. Friedkin received an Oscar nomination (but not a win) for his directing, which was effective in front of the camera, but ingenious behind it (shooting the exorcism scene in sub-zero temperatures and including pig noises on the soundtrack was pure, maniacal genius). Non-fans, like myself, aren't over the moon about a movie so sensationally grotesque. Still, Friedkin set out to make a shocker and he succeeded, though he insists it was the human element that attracted him and that the film isn't a "horror" story as much as a drama with religious overtones.

On top of the world, as one of Hollywood's most successful and powerful, with the industry and audiences waiting anxiously to see what he'd come up with next, Friedkin's time in the sun ended with his next film. Sorcerer (1977), a remake of The Wages of Fear, that opened during the summer of 1977 and (he claims) was ignored by audiences stuck on Star Wars. The truth is that audiences hated the film, which, despite the title, wasn't remotely supernatural but a long, ethereal, and murky adventure film. Starring Roy Scheider as one of a handful of criminals for hire, who agree to drive trucks loaded with nitroglycerine through a treacherous jungle. Much of the film is visually wondrous and thrilling, but Friedkin gives the story a long prologue that should've been dropped. Also, Friedkin's self indulgences overwhelm a gripping story. As it stands, the film is sometimes brilliant but often frustrating. Friedkin, who has a reputation for being a "difficult" director, was reportedly a terror to work with and the budget and shooting schedule went out of control. Unlike Apocalypse Now, another lavish, overboard production made by a director who confessed to going nuts during filming, Sorcerer did not emerge with critical praise. Instead, a once white hot career cooled overnight.

To Live and Die in L.A. PosterFriedkin's follow-up films didn't help him re-establish himself. Few saw The Brink's Job (1978), a farcical heist romp with Peter Falk, but many took note of Cruising (1980) and Deal of the Century (1983). The former, starring Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover into a sleazy underworld in order to catch a killer, is a ridiculous film that has been accused of portraying gays as scary, S&M-loving sickos. The latter, starring Chevy Chase as an arms dealer, is even worse, a comedy with a great opening that goes nowhere and fails as a farce or satire. Both were embarrassing flops.

1985 was a sort of return to form for Friedkin. While not as popular as The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) was critically acclaimed and is still noteworthy for the sensational car chase sequence mid-movie. The film is a flashy, violent and imperfect thriller that still has a lot of outspoken fans. On television, Friedkin directed an infamous episode of The New Twilight Zone called "Nightcrawlers". Typically of Friedkin, the episode (about an all-night diner and a scary patron who dines there) was very expensive and is still one of the most intense programs ever shown on television. Even now, this fantastic short film (look for it - you'll be glad you did) hasn't lost its power to disturb. Yet, these two works didn't really catch fire beyond Friedkin's small fan base.

The Guardian PosterTwo returns to horror were ignored. Rampage (1988), about a serial killer, was barely released and most critics noted how graphic but underwhelming it was. The Guardian (1990), on the other hand, was distributed with great fanfare. Every trailer and poster proclaimed it "From The Director of The Exorcist" and, as the film is a supernatural horror film, it appeared to be the return to the genre that audiences expected but didn't find in Sorcerer. Rather than take on demonic possession, The Guardian hits closer to home - it's about a married couple who discover the nanny they hired may have murderous intentions on their newborn son. The film comes closer than The Hand That Rocks The Cradle to being a razor sharp exploration (and exploitation) of parental nightmares and, at times, the film delivers. Yet the film's sillier elements (a man-eating tree, for example) defeat the genuinely startling moments that work. Audiences fled after the opening weekend and critics were quite vicious. As horror films go, The Guardian is memorable and has a some powerful set pieces, but the unintentionally campy, over-the-top moments do it in.

The films that followed were big-budget crowd pleasers with only some success. Blue Chips, Jade, Rules of Engagement and The Hunted were all released by Paramount to varying degrees of success; Blue Chips (1994) was barely in theaters and received mixed reviews, though the film itself isn't bad and where else can you see Nick Nolte act alongside Shaquille O'Neil? Jade (1995) was the much-hyped adult thriller from Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas and his sleazy, laughable script resulted in a film audiences and critics hated. Too bad, as the film is beautifully filmed and scored, and Friedkin directs some great set pieces (like the long, opening credits pan and a couple of thrilling car chases).

Rules of Engagement PosterRules of Engagement (2000) is the closest Friedkin has come to having a blockbuster hit, though the box office gross was just short of matching the film's budget. Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, this military courtroom thriller was popular with audiences and well received in 2000. The Hunted (2003), which followed three years later, also starred Jones and had a long, troubled shoot. The film wasn't a hit, though this was the least of Friedkin's problems. His wife, Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing, was accused of nepotism, as her husband was given projects to direct that were hot (like Jade) and not typically handed to directors who hadn't had a real hit in decades. Whether you agree with that accusation or not, no one could have made Jade a hit and Friedkin's best work during his Paramount era was directing a remake of 12 Angry Men for HBO. The film received great reviews, mostly for its hard hitting cast, though Friedkin did get a much deserved Emmy nomination for his work.

Now, with the release of Friedkin's low budget but much-discussed Bug (2007), it looks like a long awaited comeback could happen. The film premiered at Cannes last year and got a powerful reaction from audiences. Starring Ashley Judd as a woman whose unfortunate encounter with an unstable soldier leads to escalating madness, the film has divided filmgoers but has made quite an impression. Naysayers declare the film is too over-the-top, obviously based on a stage play and utterly unpleasant. Fans of it (including Roger Ebert) say this is a truly disturbing, terrifying and riveting work, with Friedkin back in top form and Judd never better.

Friedkin, who has said the most unsettling horror film he has seen in years was United 93, considers Bug a horror film that takes audiences into uncharted places but one that has a strong human element. Just as The Exorcist took real people into a wrenching heart of darkness, Bug promises to do the same. William Friedkin may not consider himself a horror director, but he's back to freaking out audiences, big time.

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