Director Profile | The Many Madmen of William Friedkin

Auteur. Agent Provocateur. Genius. Tyrant. Madman. All of these titles and more have been used to describe one of America’s greatest directors. William Friedkin is the man behind some of the best thrillers ever made. He made some of the most famous films ever during the New Hollywood boom of the 1970s and some of the most underseen after that.

His films’ heroes were often men on the edge, both physically and mentally. They were usually burnt-out authority figures who lived for the chase and didn’t care what kind of grey areas they crossed into in pursuit of whatever meaning they eked out of life. His villains were often smooth-talking, classy gentleman that made the men chasing them look like bums but they also embodied the greatest threats to society be they greed, avarice or evil in its coldest, cruellest form.

William Friedkin started out as a documentarian in the early 60s before transitioning into feature films around 1965 with the Sonny and Cher vehicle Good Times. His 1970 drama The Boys in the Band is considered a landmark of queer cinema but it was 1971’s The French Connection that got the young director an Oscar and made him a legend of the cinematic wave that would soon wash over Hollywood and leave it forever changed.

“Never trust anyone”

Detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are on the tail of notorious French heroin smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) in New York City. The Big Apple was hugely different in the 70s from what it is today. Watch a film like The French Connection or Taxi Driver and it feels like you have to scrape the grime out of the disc tray once it’s over. Most movies set in New York at the time either tried to make it look cleaner or just shot on lookalike sets in Los Angeles. Not Friedkin though, he wanted the setting of his film to look smog-choked and shit-smeared.


This decision was a holdover from his documentary and live TV days. Imperfections, when filmed right, add up to a more perfect whole. So what if every pavement is cracked and broken? So what if steam is pouring into shot from drains and subway grates? It adds to the authenticity and realism of the film which is what a film like The French Connection needs. The story of drug smugglers bringing half a million dollars’ worth of pure heroin into New York City is not ludicrous by any means but these images of well-dressed Frenchmen strutting around New York City don’t exactly scream drug dealer, especially when the cops chasing them look like they spent the night in a sewer.

Popeye and Cloudy don’t play by the rules – what compelling cop characters ever did? – but their methods don’t so much ignore the rulebook as tear it up. All Popeye cares about is the bad guy and it’s pretty clear that’s all Cloudy cares about too, despite his bitching. No trick is too low whether Popeye disguising himself as Santa or beating the shit out of informants. Regardless of their flaunting the rules it’s still compelling to see two men go to the end of their respective tethers and beyond in order to stop these heroin traffickers.

On his day off Popeye is attacked by a sniper in his apartment complex. Although missing the cop the French assassin kills a young mother and Popeye sets off in pursuit. What follows is easily one of the best car chases ever filmed. After commandeering a man’s car Popeye careens down a two lane street in pursuit of the subway his would-be-assassin is riding. Watching Popeye slalom between lanes, often smashing into other cars and barely missing pedestrians as he goes, is easily the most thrilling part of the film. It all leads up to him shooting his assassin apparent in the back; a grim reminder that The French Connection is not as simple as cops and criminals but desperate men for whom the hunt comes first and the law second. Something encapsulated in its kick-in-the-guts ending that feels less like a period and more like a harshly printed ellipses.

“What an excellent day for an exorcism”

Speaking of desperate men and desperate people in general Friedkin obviously wasn’t finished with stressing audiences out or with making incredibly popular, genre defining films. The Exorcist was released in 1973 to enormous controversy and massive popular appeal. It racked up more Oscar nominations then The French Connection – ten to Connection’s eight – but only won two, Best Adapted Screenplay for William Peter Blatty, who adapted his own novel, and Best Sound Editing. Despite its controversy, which included a ban on the film in the UK, The Exorcist was a smash both critically and commercially and became one of Warner Bros’ highest grossing films ever.

Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) is a sweet, angelic child living in Georgetown, Washington D.C. After playing with an Ouija board Regan begins to display strange and aggressive behaviour. After trying every medical procedure and diagnosis under the sun her actress mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) sends for priests, Fathers Damian Karras (Jason Miller) and Lancaster Merrin (the late Max Von Sydow), to perform an exorcism. What followed would change the landscape of horror cinema forever.

What’s striking about The Exorcist is – much like The French Connection – how real it feels. Friedkin doesn’t throw gore or jump scares around like they’re going out of fashion. He lets the dread and unease build and build. Regan goes through hell in the film and the same could be said for Linda Blair herself. Blair broke vertebrae in her back while filming a scene that involved her thrashing about in bed. She recovered but was left with a lasting injury, much like a stunt that had Burstyn being flung across the room in the same scene. All the characters in The Exorcist feel like real people thrown into nightmare scenarios.

Early on in the film Karras visits his ailing mother in New York. Several scenes later she’s dead leading Karras to spiral into an even deeper crisis of faith. How can he perform an exorcism when he cannot believe in it? The Exorcist was a draining experience for many of the actors. The exorcism scenes were filmed in a literal walk-in freezer and stories would later emerge of Friedkin slapping and shooting a gun loaded with blanks behind an actor to get the required mood for a scene. Still that drained feeling is key to putting you in the heads of Chris and Fathers Karras and Lancaster.

The making of the film proved a harrowing experience not just for the actors but for Friedkin himself. Despite being raised Jewish and later becoming agnostic Friedkin would later state that The Exorcist turned him towards Christianity. Friedkin works hard but the Devil works harder.

“You don’t think all the trucks will make it, one of us is a backup”

In Sorcerer, four men arrive in a tiny South American village. Jackie – an Irish-American mobster (Roy Scheider), Victor – a French banker (Bruno Cremer), Kassem – a Palestinian freedom fighter (Hamidou Benmessaoud) and Nilo – a Mexican hitman (Francisco Rabal) are all on the run and desperate to get out of their respectively shitty situations. When a fire breaks out in an oil well 200 miles away the oil company hires all four men to drive trucks loaded with highly unstable dynamite to extinguish the blaze.

There is no magic in Sorcerer only cold, harsh reality. It was supposed to be Friedkin’s masterpiece; a legacy picture that, no matter what came before or afterwards, would put the name William Friedkin permanently alongside the other masters. In a way it is his masterpiece but it’s also one of his most underseen films. After numerous delays, firings, reshoots and accidents Sorcerer opened in 1977 a month after George Lucas’ Star Wars premiered and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sorcerer takes its time with its characters. It lets its audience wallow in their fucked up little lives in the four opening vignettes and in the washed out, swampy village before they all set off on one of the sweatiest journeys in cinematic history. Roy Scheider – one of the defining thriller leads of the 70s – later said that learning to drive a truck for the film amounted to “rehearsing to stay alive”. The film’s gruelling shoot is a little told legend especially when compared to the likes of Apocalypse Now but over four decades on it’s clear that it was all worth it.

The image of a monstrous truck crossing a rope bridge on the verge of washing away guided by a soaked, screaming man crystallises the tension and dirt and bravura that makes these New Hollywood thrillers so unique. Few sequences are as knuckle whitening as the bridge crossing in Sorcerer, even fewer display such technical know-how and genius. That’s without mentioning the work done by Scheider, Cremer, Benmessaoud and Rabal in turning these dirtbag characters into men the audience will develop a grudging and eventual willing respect for. It makes the climax’s mournfully hallucinogenic slog into something almost holy before, as is Friedkin’s habit, the ending stamps on your clenched teeth.

“I’m gonna bag Masters, and I don’t give a shit how I do it”

If Sorcerer was Friedkin’s farewell salute to the tense minimalism and absorbing realism that made him famous then To Live and Die in L.A. is his morally grey spin on the buddy cop thrillers that were so popular in the 80s. Although Friedkin’s 1985 thriller charts similar narrative ground to later films like Lethal Weapon and Tango & Cash it feels more original and not just because it came out before these films.

After his partner’s death at the hands of counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) and his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) are on the hunt for the slippery, serpentine Masters. The reckless Chance goes to any and all lengths to get his man while Vukovich gradually transforms from a by-the-book agent into a cavalier, morally compromised man.

William Petersen is best known as Gil Grissom in the original CSI but what gave him the chops to play the obsessive entomologist were his electrifying roles in 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. and Michael Mann’s Manhunter in 1986. Although Manhunter is closer to CSI, it’s Friedkin’s film that really goes in depth on what it means to be someone who not only lives but thrives on the edge.

Richard Chance is introduced stopping a suicide bomber trying to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. From there he bungie jumps off a bridge, chases an informant through an airport and drives the wrong way down a busy L.A. freeway. That last part’s important. Friedkin said he’d only do another car chase if he could make it better than the one in The French Connection. The mission was impossible but he pulled it off. William Petersen did all his own stunt driving – unusual for a scene this dangerous – and John Vukovich’s terrified reactions are real. Real too, were the counterfeiting sequences and Friedkin’s decision to consult with convicted counterfeiters not only gives this sunburnt film an added layer of authenticity but it makes what could have been a cartoonishly reptilian Dafoe performance into something frighteningly real.

Out of all the villains Friedkin has put on screen Rick Masters is the last one I want to fuck with. Killer Joe and possessed Regan come second and third, if you’re wondering. Dafoe has spent much of his film career playing villains but few have been as cruelly business-like as Masters. A consummate professional in line with the anti-heroes of Michael Mann’s best work, Masters has an added streak of meanness that’s allowed him to survive in the counterfeiting business longer than anyone. Not only does he kill Chance’s partner but later on he shoots one of his own associates in the balls. How do you bag a man like that? By not giving a shit how you do it. That’s what turns To Live and Die in L.A. from a buddy-cop movie into a complex, occasionally nihilistic thriller whose moral centre seems about to collapse at any minute.

“When you kill with your own hands there is a reverence. There’s no reverence in what you do.”

The commercial success Friedkin enjoyed during the Hollywood New Wave didn’t follow him into the decades after it. Films like 1980’s Cruising and To Live and Die in L.A. would do moderately well at the box office but by the time the 21st Century rolled around the idea of a Friedkin film breaking even was long gone. Still, any director worth their salt will tell you that money and success are a welcome bonus to the creation of art. Even if Friedkin’s lean and mean 2003 thriller The Hunted never made its money back it was still twice as good as anything from the thriller resurgence that came at the end of the 20th Century.

Government assassin Aaron Hallam (Benicio del Toro) is on the run in Oregon. After too many missions in the Balkans leave him disturbed he goes AWOL and starts hunting people in the pine forests outside Seattle. Aaron’s former teacher, the jittery civilian survival instructor L. T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), is asked to track the insane soldier down. The retrieval operation is complicated by the FBI, government secrecy and Bonham’s own burgeoning sense of responsibility.

It’s easy to compare The Hunted to Rambo: First Blood. But where the audience has genuine empathy for Stallone’s John Rambo, abused as he is by a small town cop, their relationship with del Toro’s Hallam is bound to be more complicated. Introduced tracking and then slitting the throat of a Kosovo commander the next time he’s seen is when he’s tracking and murdering two innocent hunters in an Oregon state park. Something, somewhere went horribly wrong.

The Hunted explains very little about itself and unlike a lot of similar action thrillers leaves much of the why up to audience interpretation. We know the basics of the two main characters but beyond a mention of PTSD it’s left up to the audience to puzzle out what went so wrong in Hallam’s head that he went from killing war criminals to killing American citizens. Bonham is as much of a puzzle. Like Hallam he too has isolated himself – this time in the snowy forests of Canada – and like Hallam he too seeks to quiet the noise in his head by staying as far away from people as he can. Jones plays him as a man full of nervous energy, like a cornered dog, and that energy is only fed when he’s in close quarters with people. Bonham obviously feels an amount of guilty responsibility for training the killer elite of the US Special Forces and with Hallam’s return he sees it as his chickens coming home to roost. Only these chickens are trained in Filipino knife fighting.

The Hunted races from set-up to action sequence like it has less than its 95 minute runtime to tell its story. Before you know it L. T. Bonham has swapped his log cabin for a cross-city chase through Seattle before he and Hallam are forging their own knives and going mano a mano on a rocky cliff. The only part of The Hunted that actually feels long is the climactic knife fight and that’s because every block and bloody cut feels so well-choreographed and tense that it’s never clear what either man will do next. The Hunted already knows what it is and it’s rare you find a film with that kind of confidence in itself.

“You insult me again, and I’ll cut your face off and wear it over my own.”

Texas has never looked worse than in Killer Joe. Based on a play written in 1993 by Tracy Letts – Saoirse Ronan’s dad in Lady Bird if you can believe it – Killer Joe is an ugly, depraved film about desperate people eking out a life on the margins. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a young drug dealer in serious debt to bad men. In cahoots with his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and younger, slightly insane sister Dottie (Juno Temple), Chris decides to hire detective-cum-hitman Joe Cooper aka Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mother and collect on her $50,000 life insurance policy. Neither Chris nor Ansel can offer up front money so Joe takes Dottie as a retainer. The two fall in love and Chris’ problems only pile on him from there.

Killer Joe came at the beginning of the McConaissance – an era that lasted about five years and scored the actor an Oscar win and an Emmy nomination. Killer Joe is just one example of good directors making the best use of Mathew McConaughey. Others include Jeff Nichols’ Mud and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. William Friedkin seems to know that despite the ease with which McConaughey can settle into a Texan character and setting he can also project an incredible unease with such a performance. Sure, forcing a woman to perform oral sex on a fried chicken leg is bound to make anyone without a very specific fetish uneasy but that’s the endpoint of Joe Cooper’s unmasking. Though he begins the film as a slick, suave and well-respected policeman he ends it as debased and depraved as the rest of the scum-sucking cast of characters.

For as filthy and sweaty and bloody a movie as Killer Joe is it’s also very, very funny. Neither Letts’ script nor Friedkin’s direction have a lot of respect for the characters, especially Chris. Still, that lack of respect means that it’s easier to laugh at these characters when they make mistakes. In the film’s view no one here is worthy of respect or even pity. Ansel, for instance, is often questioned in regard to understanding of the events surrounding him. Questions like “What do you think?” or “Were you aware of this?” are met with the apathetic, gormless responses of “I don’t think” or “I’m never aware”. Still, even a man as dull as Ansel can see which way the wind is blowing as Killer Joe reaches its chaotic, intimate climax.

The money is gone. Chris is trying to high tail it to Peru with Dottie. Ansel is betrayed by Sharla and Joe is coming to collect on his retainer by marrying Dottie. If the only desperate character before was Chris it’s safe to say that everyone is desperate now that the truth is out. Desperate people do desperate things – although that’s no excuse for the drumstick fellatio – but this nervous atmosphere puts the focus on Killer Joe’s brightest star: Dottie. For the entire film it’s unclear whether Dottie is clinically insane or actually the smartest person in the room. It’s a question that Killer Joe never answers, maybe she’s both. It’s clear in the final shot as she points the pistol at Joe after shooting her brother and father that she’s as desperate as the rest of them.

She’s also more in control than she’s ever been in the film, perhaps more in control than she’s ever been in her whole life. Although the cut to black ostensibly leaves the ending ambiguous, the click of the pistol’s hammer just before the credits roll says more than any image could.

Most of William Friedkin’s thrillers don’t end happily, for anyone. By the time I watched To Live and Die in L.A. I was hoping for the best and expecting the worst. A lot of the time characters come out with less than they started with. Whether it’s their jobs, their innocence, their sanity or even their lives, everyone is guaranteed to lose something by the end of a William Friedkin film.

Killer Joe was Friedkin’s last fiction film, so far. So it’s surprising that in a film so grim and cynical in regard to human life and emotion, a character actually comes out with more than she started out with. Her whole life Dottie’s been boxed in, dismissed and treated as a kooky object. Once she has Joe’s gun though she’s in control. Sure she just shot her brother dead and it’s not looking good for Ansel but in a filmography where so much is taken from people due to past actions and current mistakes it’s hard not to see Dottie’s moment of power as a positive. It’s difficult to guess how long this moment would last in reality after that cut to black but the thing with film endings is that – much like the legacies of esteemed directors – they last forever.

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