“I tend to be attracted to characters who are up against a wall with very few alternatives,” William Friedkin once said. “That’s what interests me in terms of human behaviour.”
William Friedkin’s taste for desperation and intensity, combined with a cutting visual style, made him one of the 1970s’ truly essential directors. Though he closed out his career scratching away on low budget films while largely disconnected from the mainstream (“I frankly am not on the same page with most of the films that are being made by the studios now. I certainly can’t think of any that I wish I had directed”), Friedkin was once a powerhouse filmmaking force on a par with Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. With The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) – both phenomenal hits that remain landmark works – Friedkin put himself at the top of the tree, but due to poor choices, shattering hubris and a self-destructive sense of iconoclasm, the director eventually engineered his own career collapse and fall from grace.
Raised in a Chicago slum and unable to afford to attend college, Friedkin got a job in the mailroom at Chicago’s WGN TV station. By his early twenties, he was directing live television and making documentaries, but really made a splash with the TV documentary The People Vs. Paul Crump (1962), which actually led to the commutation of the title subject’s death sentence. This led to more docos and TV before Friedkin made the leap to features with Good Times (1967), an unsuccessful cinematic vehicle for TV stars Sonny & Cher. This, however, didn’t stop Friedkin’s forge forward. The comedy The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) and an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1968) followed, but Friedkin’s first big screen controversy wouldn’t strike until 1970’s The Boys In The Band, the first Hollywood movie to deal exclusively with gay themes and characters. Though groundbreaking, the film was hated by many in the gay community for its whining, stereotypical gallery of characters.
The one-two punch that followed, however, was one of the most powerful of the decade. 1971’s crime thriller The French Connection made a star out of Gene Hackman and picked up a fistful of Oscars (including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor), while the epochal horror classic The Exorcist (1973) absolutely torched the box office. These two mammoth successes put Friedkin in the picture as part of the profit-sharing, highly idealistic Directors’ Company, which was formed by fellow wiz kids Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, and was devised as an opportunity for directors to achieve true creative freedom. After a series of failures, the venture was marked as an unsuccessful pipe dream, and Friedkin was back on his own.
With two monster hits behind him, Friedkin had near carte blanche, and he quickly abused it to staggering levels. 1977’s Sorcerer was a remake of the French classic The Wages Of Fear (a touchstone film for renowned cinephile Friedkin) that went way over budget and tanked at the box office. Though now justifiably an adored cult film, the utterly fascinating Sorcerer was unfortunately the kick-off point for Friedkin’s downward slide. From then on, the director delivered a long line of artistic and financial failures – The Brink’s Job, Deal Of The Century, The Guardian, Jade, Rampage and Rules Of Engagement – only occasionally punctuated by strong works such as 1980’s controversial and reviled Cruising, 1985’s To Live And Die In LA, the unconventional 2003 actioner The Hunted, and the trippy horror-thriller straight-to-DVD release Bug.
“Sure, I was arrogant,” Friedkin told The New York Times in 2000. “I let success go to my head. I did not suffer fools gladly. I probably was more enamoured of myself than my talent deserved. I thought I was infallible. I wasn’t.” Though a talented and visionary director capable of fascinating work (and a wonderfully entertaining interview subject), Will Friedkin (along with Michael Cimino) is one of the most bruising examples of how quickly the mighty can fall in Hollywood. But on his passing, it’s the classics that stand out, and pretty much any director would envy William Friedkin’s best work.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN’S BEST
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
With Gene Hackman front and centre as deeply flawed tough guy cop Popeye Doyle, and Roy Scheider riding shotgun as his slightly more restrained partner, this bristling, grittily realistic crime thriller is a landmark film of the seventies.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
Allegedly putting his actors through hell to get the best performances possible, Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel is a horror film like no other, striking at American institutions like family and the Church while providing a now iconic cavalcade of scares.
Though the film that sunk Friedkin’s career, this grim, existential thriller brims over with fascinating characters and bravura filmmaking. Roy Scheider is one of a crew of desperate men charged with driving nitro-filled trucks through the South American jungles.
TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA (1985)
Morally tenuous, thematically uncompromising and utterly gripping from beginning to end, this nihilistic crime drama pits William Petersen’s corrupt, hard-bitten Secret Service Agent against Willem Dafoe’s fey, unscrupulous counterfeiter with highly stylised results.
THE HUNTED (2003)
Ignored by both critics and audiences, this edgy and startlingly minimalist thriller stars Tommy Lee Jones as an FBI deep-woods tracker pursuing a trained assassin (Benicio Del Toro) who has made a sport of hunting humans, and delivers a solid array of shocks with its aggressive and tightly staged violence.