top of page
  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

The Friedkin Connection

The film director William Friedkin, who has died aged 87, was slightly older than the “movie brats” group (Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and so on) credited with revolutionising US cinema in the late 1960s and early 70s.

Like Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet, Friedkin had come to cinema through TV and documentary, but made a vital contribution to the American new wave. His double-whammy in the first half of the 1970s, The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), met with critical acclaim and a level of box-office success that elevated them into pop-culture phenomena. They also managed to overshadow everything else he did.

Nevertheless it would be wrong to characterise his career as a rise and fall. His finest hour was arguably the 1985 cop-and-counterfeiters thriller To Live and Die in LA, while he scored a modest triumph late in the day with his 2011 adaptation of Tracy Letts’s southern-fried noir play Killer Joe.

But his steady hand, his timing and his commercial savvy were evident in those early hits. The French Connection, with its preference for hand-held, vérité-style camerawork and on-the-hoof sound recording, sometimes at the expense of intelligibility, took the American policier to a level of authenticity and grittiness to which the genre still aspires today.

Friedkin was never shy of owning up to his mistakes; his 2013 memoir, The Friedkin Connection, opens with an account of various regrettable errors, including passing up the chance to buy an ownership stake in Mike Tyson and throwing away some sketches by the then-unknown artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

To these can be added his reluctance to cast Gene Hackman as The French Connection’s dishevelled antihero, “Popeye” Doyle.

Among the film’s five Academy Awards was a best actor prize for Hackman’s snarling performance, and one for Friedkin as best director.

With The Exorcist Friedkin integrated serious themes with extreme gore and intense terror, but rejected the idea that it belonged to the horror genre.

His parents and grandparents had fled Kiev (Kyiv) in the early 1900s, making the passage to the US by hiding on freighter ships. William was born and raised in Chicago, the son of Rachel (nee Green), who gave up her job as an operating-room nurse when he was born, and Louis, a former semi-professional softball player turned cigar maker and men’s clothing salesman.

Friedkin characterised his own adolescence as one of frustration and thwarted dreams: “From an early age, my ambitions overwhelmed my abilities,” he wrote. “It’s a miracle I didn’t end up in jail or on the streets.”

He graduated from Senn high school in 1953 and got a job in the post-room of a local Chicago television station, WGN-TV. He worked his way up through various positions, acting as floor manager on several hundred shows before a vacancy opened for a director of live drama.

But it was a cinematic experience around the same time that proved formative. One afternoon in the early 60s, Friedkin went to see Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane for the first time, entering the cinema at noon and not leaving until late that evening, having watched the movie five times back-to-back: “No film I’ve seen before or since meant so much to me. I thought, ‘Whatever that is, that’s what I want to do…’ On that Saturday, just three years younger than Welles when he created Kane, I resolved to become a film-maker.”

In 1962, he made The People vs Paul Crump, an award-winning documentary about a man on death row, and also directed an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, before knocking out four features: Good Times (1965), a vehicle for the musical duo Sonny & Cher; the comedy The Night They Raided Minsky’s and an intermittently electrifying screen version of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (both 1968); and another theatre adaptation, The Boys in the Band (1970), about a group of gay friends.

In his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the film historian Peter Biskind wrote that on the basis of those last two films, Friedkin had acquired a “reputation for being an art film director, the kiss of death. He was depressed, afraid he would never work again.”

Salvation came in the shape of a screenplay adapted from a factual bestseller about the NYPD’s campaign to smash a drug ring. Friedkin brought an unprecedented level of realism to The French Connection. A key sequence, thrillingly executed by Friedkin, features a seven-minute chase through Brooklyn, with Popeye (in a stolen car) trying to outrun and intercept his quarry, who has hijacked the train speeding along the elevated track above him.

Friedkin was not bashful about his Oscar win: Biskind reported that the director had his chair on the set of The Exorcist emblazoned with the words “An Oscar for The French Connection”. His behaviour had also become harsher and unrulier, even if there was usually a method to his madness (such as slapping a real priest, who had been hired to play an absolution scene, in order to produce the required nervous energy).

The Exorcist was a calculating combination of the portentous and the shrill, mixing religious inquiry with brazenly shocking scenes showing Regan (played by the 13-year-old Linda Blair) masturbating with a crucifix, growling obscenities and projectile vomiting. Friedkin’s grasp of tone was sure, though the movie sometimes seemed to be in denial about its own carnivalesque tactics.

These two defining peaks of Friedkin’s career were followed in 1977 by his most conspicuous commercial flop: Sorcerer, a thriller about four men driving a combustible cargo of dynamite through the rainforest. It was based on the same source material as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece The Wages of Fear, and while not in the same league it was nonetheless undeserving of its box-office fate.

Various factors were blamed, ranging from Friedkin’s hubris to a release date adjacent to Star Wars. It would not be until a remastered print of Sorcerer was screened at the Venice film festival in 2013 that it would begin to lose its unwarranted taint of failure.

He insisted it was the work of his which remained closest to his original vision: “The way I saw the film in my mind’s eye, that is the one that’s pretty much there.”

His usual bluster was absent from his next film, the low-key comedy-thriller The Brink’s Job (1978), a dramatisation of the $3m Brink’s robbery in Boston, which Friedkin made when his proposed film of Born on the Fourth of July (later shot by Oliver Stone) fell through.

The mixture of sensational subject matter and po-faced tone that had served him so well on The Exorcist did not prove so successful with Cruising (1980), a lurid and occasionally objectionable thriller starring Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover in the gay S&M subculture to catch a murderer.

An early draft of the script had been leaked, prompting an onslaught of objections from the gay press, and by the time the film emerged heavily trimmed by the censor’s scissors, it was something of a tarnished cause célèbre. Though Cruising is more complex and conflicted than some of its detractors would allow, it looks unlikely to undergo the same critical rehabilitation as Sorcerer.

To Live and Die in LA showed that not only had Friedkin’s French Connection-era knack for dynamic action sequences not deserted him, but he could combine it with a slicker, stylised aesthetic. The rest of the 80s, however, was not a fertile time for him.

He made Deal of the Century (1983), a listless comedy about the arms race, the TV movie C.A.T. Squad (1986) and the thriller Rampage (1987), which he adapted himself from William P Wood’s book.

The Guardian (1990) returned him to the horror genre. Blue Chips (1994), a drama about the politics of college basketball, was subtle and powerful, with an uncompromising lead performance by Nick Nolte, but it foundered commercially (it went straight to video in the UK).

The thriller Jade (1995) earned some notoriety when its extravagantly paid screenwriter Joe Eszterhas complained of the changes made to his script; Friedkin, who was responsible for the rewrites, later named it as his favourite of his own movies.

Rules of Engagement (2000) was a mediocre drama with reactionary overtones, about a court-martial following the massacre of civilians in Yemen. The star of that film, Tommy Lee Jones, was reunited with the director in another thriller, The Hunted (2003). But Friedkin found new momentum of sorts in two adaptations of claustrophobic thrillers by Letts – Bug (2006) and Killer Joe.

In 2013, he returned to Pinter’s The Birthday Party, directing the play for the stage in Los Angeles, with Tim Roth and Steven Berkoff among the cast. However, this was postponed at the 11th hour when Friedkin decided to replace Berkoff in the part of the intimidating inquisitor Goldberg (though Berkoff claimed to have resigned). The production did not find a replacement and was never staged.

In 2018, he was the subject of Friedkin Uncut, which combed through his career and featured interviews with collaborators, celebrity fans and the director himself, who is heard confirming that he only ever asks for one or two takes: “I’m not looking for perfection,” he says.

His final films were The Devil and Father Amorth (2017), a documentary about a real-life exorcist, and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (2023), an updated adaptation of the Herman Wouk novel first filmed in 1954, starring Kiefer Sutherland.

It will premiere next month at the Venice film festival, where the director was honoured in 2013 with a lifetime achievement award.

3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page