As he noted in more than a few of the generously candid interviews he gave over the years, William Friedkin believed profoundly in the existence of evil. That may not sound like the stuff of revelation coming from the director of “The Exorcist,” though one of the reasons that 1973 landmark lives on so forcefully — the reason it’s outlived all the half-hearted horror homages, the pea-soup parodies and the (still-ongoing) chain of sequels and prequels — is that it treats the reality of the demonic with a deadly serious, utterly unfakable conviction.
To these eyes, the movie’s most subversive suggestion is that the devil that has taken possession of young Regan MacNeil may only be the greater of two evils. The lesser evil, arguably, is the pervasive skepticism that attends her mother and her caretakers as they subject the girl to a battery of medical tests, shot with an icy, clinical detachment that‘s more disturbing than the movie’s head-spinning genre flourishes. Again and again, they cannot countenance the idea that Regan’s malaise might be supernatural. But Friedkin clearly countenances it, and then some: If there’s a reason “The Exorcist” is not just one of the great horror films but one of the great religious films, it’s in how deeply he commits to the redemptive properties of faith and deliverance. The power of Christ compels him too.
Even so, you would be forgiven for watching Friedkin’s movies and feeling that evil interested him more, that it spoke to and drew out his ferociously dark gifts as a filmmaker. It was this specific, signature intensity that distinguished him even among his fellow New Hollywood iconoclasts, including his onetime partners Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, who took the industry by storm in the early ’70s. If Friedkin approached evil on a spiritual and intellectual plane, his genius was for channeling it viscerally and with sometimes brutal bluntness, for conjuring otherworldly menace through the sometimes steady, often-agitated movements of his camera, and for pushing his actors to unimaginable heights of terror and duress.
But Friedkin pushed himself too — the stories of his production woes are legion — and with an unflagging intensity that defines so much of his long, glorious, wayward and undervalued career. In the weeks before his death today at the age of 87, he had been putting the finishing touches on his now-final film, an adaptation of Herman Wouk’s play “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” which will premiere in a few weeks at the Venice International Film Festival.
Strangely enough, I remember emerging from a Venice press screening of another screen-to-stage work, “Killer Joe,” his unrepentantly nasty Texas noir from 2011, and thinking it had been a while since I’d seen a picture in which a free-floating malevolence seemed to course so palpably through every frame — a malevolence that found its greatest concentration in Matthew McConaughey’s performance in the vile, predatory, fried-chicken-weaponizing title role. (It’s the least-heralded touchstone of the McConnaissance, and possibly the best.) “Killer Joe” was the second of Friedkin’s two screen adaptations of plays by Tracy Letts; the first was “Bug” (2007), a skin-crawlingly claustrophobic psychological freakout, starring Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd, that proved scarcely more reassuring in its evocation of the horrors that fester within.
The viciously assaultive quality of these later movies makes them especially tough, though not impossible, to return to. It’s not something you’d say about the hectic, unadorned rawness that drives (in every sense) a perennial like “The French Connection” (1971), which vaulted Friedkin to powerhouse prominence and won five Academy Awards, including Oscars for best picture and director. Here, the seething fury of Friedkin’s filmmaking springs to life, not just in Gene Hackman’s performance as the most dogged of New York detectives, but also through a roaring, no-holds-barred plunge into the heart of the city that the director has long traced back to his own nonfiction roots (as well as the vivid, documentary-infused realism of Costa-Gavras’ 1969 landmark “Z”).
Pauline Kael, famously not a fan of “The French Connection,” described it as “an aggravated case of New York” and “what we once feared mass entertainment might become: jolts for jocks.” More than a half-century later, though, the jolting kineticism of Friedkin’s approach feels like something almost akin to classicism, in its back-to-basics spirit and furious texture. Like so many 1970s triumphs of guerrilla-style action filmmaking, that still-astonishing climactic car chase — Hackman wailing on his car horn below as he pursues his quarry fleeing on the B train above — feels like a pulse-pounding rebuke to so many of today’s Hollywood action movies, with their thrills-free preponderance of computerized green screens and weightless digital extras.
Eras change, and so do movies. That’s quite literally true of “The French Connection,” which made headlines just a few weeks ago after it came to light that a six-second scene, in which Hackman uses a racial slur, had been excised from the movie on digital platforms including Apple TV+ and the Criterion Channel. It was, as many rightly decried, a ludicrous case of censorial overreach that, in the misguided name of sensitivity, sought to shield audiences from the unapologetic racism of Hackman’s character and the institution he represents, and also to perpetuate the unfortunate myth that a movie’s protagonist must always be its hero.
(20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
If “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” made Friedkin’s reputation, much of his subsequent career — which his unkindest detractors might characterize as a 50-year fall from grace, beset by financing woes and aborted projects — remains ripe for rediscovery. I don’t know what that means for the many box-office disappointments he directed during the 1980s and ’90s, including “Rampage,” “Blue Chips” and “Jade,” a personal favorite of Friedkin’s. But in many cases, the reclamation has been under way for some time, especially in the case of “Sorcerer” (1977) and “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), two thrillers that underwhelmed on arrival but have, for many, taken their place among the director’s crowning achievements.
Few critical re-estimations are perhaps more fascinating than the one that has happened to “Cruising,” Friedkin’s 1980 cop thriller set against the backdrop of West Village gay life (and death). Even pre-release, it stirred a massive outcry among those who feared its serial-killer plot would inflame homophobic perceptions and violence. Al Pacino’s fully committed performance as an undercover cop and the story’s slippery sexual politics rattled nerves in every direction; critically and commercially, the movie barely lived up to the excitement of its controversy.
But in the decades since, more than a few defenders have repositioned “Cruising” as the opposite of the anti-gay document it was once dismissed as, instead seeing it as an audacious, playful and exuberantly atmospheric plunge into a zone of unfettered male desire, a bracing sweat-and-leather spectacle that was rare for mainstream cinema then — and remains rare now. Friedkin may have approached this milieu with an outsider’s naivete, but crucially, the evil that wends its way through “Cruising” is merely in this world, not of it.
That sets it decidedly apart from the horror that swiftly and unrelentingly suffuses “Sorcerer,” his masterly nail-biter about four damned men making a journey through a Colombian heart of darkness. Although the film was adapted (by Walon Green) from the same Georges Arnaud novel that spawned Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic “The Wages of Fear” (1953), Friedkin insisted he had embarked on not a remake but a reimagining. And indeed, what emerged from this astoundingly complicated and embattled production feels like a revved-up beast of its own making, a tour de force of blood, rain, oil and nitroglycerin that you know is doomed to end badly and becomes all the more mesmerizing for it.
It’s the work of a filmmaker who in his finest moments could turn the screen into a portal, opening his eyes and ours to the darkest of magic.