Where to begin with William Friedkin

With The Exorcist back in cinemas for its 50th anniversary, we plot a beginner’s path through the shock and awe cinema of the late William Friedkin.

The Exorcist (1973)

Why this might not be so easy

William Friedkin’s debut was Good Times (1967), the Sonny and Cher musical, but it tells us nothing about his talent or the direction of future travel. A second feature, The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), about the birth of the striptease, saw him taken off the film in post-production for badmouthing the project to the British press while in the UK setting up his third picture (though released second), The Birthday Party (1968), an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Kafka-by-the-seaside play. The Boys in the Band (1970), a landmark in queer-themed cinema, proved another financial misfire. An inauspicious and muddled start if ever there was one.

An overview of the Chicago native’s filmography gives the impression of an erratic talent, a guy who made two Oscar-winning pictures, The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), then became a busted flush. But when the script was right – and sometimes it wasn’t, for sure – Friedkin proved himself a master of exhilarating cinema. 

To New Hollywood filmmaking, Friedkin brought a fearless taste for the sensational and controversial, and utilised documentary techniques to juice up material with a deceptively freewheeling realism (what he called “induced documentary”) and a preference for location shooting which further bolstered the mood. He was attracted to dark and violent projects, and nor do his movies believe in clear-cut heroes. Instead, they’re populated with tormented and morally conflicted types, the energy hyper-masculine and set in traditionally male environments (the police force, the priesthood, the secret service, the military, the criminal underworld), while the recurring theme, best described as “the mystery of fate”, delivered a potent existentialist edge. 

The best place to start – The Exorcist 

The Exorcist is the slow-burn tale of a 12-year-old girl’s possession by a demonic entity. Friedkin (handpicked to direct by novelist, screenwriter and producer William Peter Blatty) mounted the production knowing he had a mighty challenge making the unreal – even the absurd – seem possible. Friedkin used his “induced documentary” style to ground the storytelling as authentically as possible. The first half of the picture carefully takes us step-by-step through Regan MacNeil’s mystifying and inexplicable illness. In the first hour, the last thing on anybody’s mind is the supernatural. Even the film’s hero, the priest and trained psychiatrist Father Karras (Jason Miller), finds the notion of demonic possession not fit for purpose in the mid-20th century (to begin with), dismissing it as medieval nonsense. Once Friedkin has us in the palm of his hand, it’s showtime. Everything we rely on, and cling to for answers: the doctors, the psychologists, modern medicine, expensive medical machinery… None will do. It’s time to believe, to take the leap of faith.

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist told us point-blank demons could possess us anywhere, anytime, and all the crosses and prayers in the world couldn’t protect us. With Blatty’s serious-minded script (based on his bestselling novel) and Friedkin’s astute mix of realism, atmospheric creeping fear and shock-and-awe spectacle, few films in history have got under the skin of the audience like The Exorcist.

For all the head-spinning, levitation, pea-soup vomit, sexual assault with a crucifix and accompanying blasphemous declaration, “Let Jesus fuck you!” – without doubt one of the most insane moments ever put on the big screen – The Exorcist is also the tremendously moving story of a mother’s love for her child and refusal to accept nothing can be done. A horror film that can lay claim to being among the greatest ever made, its litany of haunting imagery and sounds has assured Friedkin’s artistic legacy.

What to watch next

The French Connection is a prime example of subject matter fitting a director like driving gloves. Often treated as if it were his debut, because aesthetically it kind of is, Friedkin’s methodical and tense police drama catapulted Gene Hackman to Oscar-winning stardom as the abrasive, law-flouting NYC copper Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, and its hair-raising car chase provided a blueprint for the next generation of directors. 

The French Connection (1971)

Sorcerer (1977) is a cruel, sweaty, febrile, jungle-set actioner about the illusion of redemption. Four men – international criminals lying low in a South American military dictatorship, earning a few measly pesos as oil company workers – are tasked with transporting unstable boxes of TNT across hellish terrain. Some claim this remake of the French thriller The Wages of Fear (1953) is Friedkin’s masterpiece, and there’s a strong case to be made in its favour, but its crushing failure at the box office did more than knock the director off his hubristic perch; as with Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate (1980) it completely derailed his position as a studio giant. Hollywood can be an unforgiving place to mavericks. 

Cruising (1980)

Cruising (1980) sees Al Pacino’s beat cop going undercover to catch a serial killer stalking Manhattan’s Lower West Side S&M scene. An ingeniously opaque and nightmarish take on the cat-and-mouse scenario, with clever tactile sound effects, it has a divisive reputation – for some, it’s an incoherent mess. But, unusually for the time, no moral judgements are made about gay lifestyles or even extreme sexual acts, and today it’s celebrated as a time capsule depiction of the since-gentrified Meatpacking District and heavy leather subculture. 

His 1985 neo-noir To Live and Die in L.A. is a fresh spin on the obsessive lawman figure. This time, it’s a secret service agent on the trail of an artist who makes his millions by counterfeiting dollar bills. There’s a breakneck car chase into oncoming traffic to savour, a Wang Chung soundtrack, early performances by John Turturro and Willem Dafoe, and hot-headed protagonist Richard Chance (William Petersen) gives ‘Popeye’ Doyle a run for his money.

Like several other of his films, Rampage, in which a maniac goes on a random killing spree, exists in two cuts: a European cut released in 1987 and a shorter version put out in 1992. The 1987 cut is superior. Like The Exorcist, its theme is the clash between light and dark, with an assistant district attorney with an opposition to the death penalty (played by Michael Biehn) having his faith in the courts tested by the film’s blank-faced psycho. 

Jade (1995)

Erotic thriller Jade (1995) put a stop to any idea of Friedkin enjoying a studio comeback. While the casting of David Caruso is mystifying, it works as a spiritual companion piece to Cruising: they’re both studies in identity, appearance and our hidden secret selves. Again it featured a barnstorming car chase, and its elegant craft sits in contrast to the male entitlement and grubby political games motivating the plot. 

Both 12 Angry Men (made for network television in 1997) and Rules of Engagement (2000) explored the US legal system once more in differing but gripping contexts (domestic murder and military operations in foreign lands), while The Hunted (2003) saw Friedkin’s craftmanship transform an uninspired ‘Rambo meets The Fugitive’ premise into a cracking ‘sins of the father’ yarn, complete with a terrifically staged chase sequence (this time on foot).

With his mid-2000s career on the skids, Friedkin teamed up with playwright and sometime-actor Tracy Letts, for two brilliantly icky and sleazy slices of deep-fried southern melodrama: Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011). In doing so, he ensured he still had it in him to upset censors and get up the noses of critics. 

Where not to start

The Brink’s Job (1978) boasts a strong cast and beautiful 1950s production design, but Friedkin’s real-life caper about a group of bumbling crooks somehow scoring one of the biggest takes in US history, is lightweight stuff. Deal of the Century (1983) is as weirdly anonymous as Friedkin gets and 1990’s eagerly anticipated return to the world of horror, The Guardian, despite impressive gore effects and inventive use of Druid mythology, is nothing to write home about when compared to Friedkin’s more famous horror landmark.

A final Friedkin feature, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, premiered at Venice this year, the month after Friedkin died.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

Get your copy