William Friedkin obituary: maverick Hollywood director of The French Connection and The Exorcist

Friedkin, who has died aged 87, had two huge early successes during the New Hollywood era, but many of his later films reveal a talent whose ability to shock and surprise remained undimmed.

14 August 2023

By Adrian Martin

William Friedkin © Guillem Medina

In William Friedkin’s 1968 film of Harold Pinter’s 1957 theatre classic The Birthday Party, a seemingly playful moment turns threatening. Meg (Dandy Nichols) offers her sullen houseguest, Stanley (Robert Shaw), a child’s drum as a birthday present. He stands up and begins to parade around the room with it, beating a military rhythm. But when he reaches Meg, Stanley’s drumming becomes manic and insistent; he appears to be attacking her with his gesture. Friedkin, who has amplified and stylised the drum sound in post-sync, adds a further, disorienting touch: at the intense height of the scene, he cuts, for several seconds, to blackness and silence. We never learn how the scene ends.

The Birthday Party (1968)

Friedkin’s entire approach to filmmaking is encapsulated in the ‘black hole’ punched in that scene. Shock, surprise, confusion: these are the states he wanted the spectators of his films to inhabit, as often and as powerfully as possible. Little wonder, then, that he became a specialist in the popular genres of horror, thriller and action. At the same time, his attachment to The Birthday Party – “a revelation as pivotal as Citizen Kane” when he saw it on stage in Chicago in 1962 – indicates his deep respect for a certain strain of so-called high culture.

Throughout his career, he returned to adapting famous plays for the screen, such as Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men in 1997, and, completed shortly before his death, a modernised version of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (2023). Relatively late in his life, he also became a prolific director of operas in the USA and Europe. 

In a crucial sense, however, Friedkin made no distinction between these various shades of high and low culture. “What I still want from a film – or a play, a painting, a novel, a piece of music”, he wrote in his 2013 memoir The Friedkin Connection, “is exhilaration. I want to be moved and surprised at some revelation about the human condition.”

Friedkin’s path as a filmmaker began as an orchestrator of live TV shows in the early 1960s, and quickly found independent expression in the hard-hitting documentary The People vs. Paul Crump (1962). His first features, the zany musical Good Times (1967) with Sonny and Cher, and the comedy The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), gave little indication of what he would later achieve. It was The Birthday Party and the gay-themed The Boys in the Band (1970), adapted from Mart Crowley’s play, that placed him on surer creative footing.

William Friedkin and Ellen Burstyn on the set of The Exorcist (1973)
© Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Friedkin was painfully aware that his smash successes – the cop thriller The French Connection (1971) and the horror movie The Exorcist (1973), both based on true cases – set a benchmark that, in purely industrial terms, he never again equalled. He joked that the remainder of his career was an “uphill climb to the bottom”. Cinephiles, of course, know better: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Blue Chips (1994) are works of remarkable energy and inventiveness, and his adaptations of two plays by Tracy Letts, Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011), reveal the director at the uncompromised peak of his powers. 

Furthermore, some of his other films are steadily being reappraised and upgraded: Sorcerer (1977) and Cruising (1980) are far more respected today than on their initial release. Even a seeming misstep such as The Guardian (1990) – mercilessly derided in its day and omitted altogether from Friedkin’s memoir – is worth revisiting as a precursor to the current ‘folk horror’ revival and the eco-horror craze.

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Friedkin may have imagined himself as sitting awkwardly between two distinct generations of American filmmakers. He was too young to have been part of the ‘live TV drama’ generation (which he greatly admired) comprising Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn and John Frankenheimer; and he was slightly displaced from the gang acclaimed as 1970s mavericks, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma. But his in-between status ultimately served him well as an artist. Although he tried his hand at a bit of everything along the way – comedy, music videos (for Laura Branigan and Barbra Streisand), TV series episodes (CSI) – his sensibility had a solid, dual foundation: he combined the classical storytelling strengths of 1950s American cinema with a taste for modernism derived from the French New Wave and other art film movements of the 60s.

Friedkin’s dearest themes are evident on the surface of his work. To paraphrase critic Jean-François Tarnowski: hero and villain constantly switch places; and the assumed moral goodness of the hero is, from the very beginning, put in question. From The French Connection, The Exorcist and Rampage (1987) to Jade (1995), The Hunted (2003) and Bug, these qualities of reversal and ambiguity hold firm. Or, as Friedkin himself reflected, the “themes that continue to haunt me” are “guilt, obsession, the breakdown of social order, a man’s inner conflict over his own actions”.

  • William Friedkin, 29 August 1935 to 7 August 2023
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