William Friedkin Left his Mark (and the Devil’s) on the Culture

The saga of American movies in the 1970s is now a mythology. In the first half of the decade, the movies that emerged from the New Hollywood were unprecedented in their realism, their immersion in the gritty side pockets of everyday life, their perception of the darkness hidden in the American Dream. Then, of course, came Lucas and Spielberg, who kicked off the blockbuster revolution — the transformation of movies from reality into fantasy. This myth has been repeated so often that we tend to take it as gospel. But, in fact, it isn’t quite accurate. Because the yin-and-yang of ’70s movies, the whole gargantuan whipsaw from reality to fantasy, had already expressed itself, quite spectacularly, in the staggering cinematic one-two punch that would forever define the director William Friedkin, who died August 7 at 87.

The first punch, of course, was “The French Connection.” Released in 1971, it was a drama about a grungy, racist New York cop, Popeye Doyle, played with a puckish fusion of glee and menace by Gene Hackman, and how his attempt to corner a European heroin smuggler turns into an obsession, a cause that drives him to extremes at once noble and deranged. We tend to think of director Sidney Lumet as the poet of street-smart, fluorescent-lit American police films, but it’s crucial to remember that Friedkin got there first. He had a background in live television and documentaries, and he directed “The French Connection” with a down-and-dirty, you-are-there immediacy that had never been seen in a cop film before, and in many ways has never been matched. It’s not just that the camerawork was jittery, the lighting bathing the boulevards in a transcendent trash murk. It’s that the audience was made to feel as if it was seeing real police officers, in all their juiced-up profanity, their walk on the line between morality and violence, for the very first time.

If you watch “The French Connection” today, you may be shocked at what a quiet movie it is. It’s a real-time thriller about staking out criminals, about cops fighting not just crime but the bureaucracy of crime-fighting; it’s also about class differences and the ugliness of bigotry (especially when it wears a plain-clothes uniform), which the film portrays with unflinching honesty.

But it’s also about the thrill of the chase. The film’s most famous sequence is the one where Popeye commandeers a civilian’s Pontiac LeMans and races like a madman through the streets of Bensonhurst, in deathless pursuit of an elevated subway train that a hitman is escaping on. It may be the greatest action scene in film history — but to say that makes it sound as if the sequence, like almost every other car chase, is “cool.” It’s much crazier than that. Friedkin shot it as if he wanted the audience to know what it would feel like to die in a demolition derby, and the virtuosic insanity of the sequence, with the camera rushing through those streets, fuses with the force of Hackman’s acting — the way he enacts Popeye’s pursuit as if it were part of an existential quest. It’s as though he needs to catch (and kill) that hitman in order to breathe.

“The French Connection” took the Academy Award for best picture, and it placed Friedkin on the cutting edge of the new American cinema. Yet there’s a fundamental way that he was different from his New Hollywood colleagues. It’s no overstatement to say that the fabled names of that era — Coppola, Altman, Scorsese, Mazursky, De Palma — were trying, and often pushing against studio restraints, to create films that were works of art. Friedkin was a filmmaker of astonishing technique, but he saw himself as a craftsman, without the pretensions of the other great ’70s directors. He once said, “When I hear that a movie is by someone rather than for someone, I smell art.” And it was that quality that may have rendered him the perfect director to make “The Exorcist.”

This was the follow-up punch, and though it’s the most famous and celebrated horror movie of the last 50 years, I would argue that there’s a way its fundamental impact remains misunderstood. Many will say of “The Exorcist,” “It’s the scariest movie ever made.” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It depends on your personal fear factor. But “The Exorcist,” a movie that seemed to channel the existence of the devil as surely as Linda Blair’s winsome-turned-monstrous Regan MacNeil did, was in many ways a movie that opened the door to the culture we live in now. It was an over-the-top sensational thrill ride. It made horror something literally, spewingly in-your-face. It was rooted in a creeping fundamentalism. And it presented fantasy as reality.

It’s almost hard to capture how big the movie was, because it wasn’t just about the numbers. Released at the end of 1973 (at Christmas!), “The Exorcist” became the second top-grossing film of 1974, right behind “The Sting,” but the movie’s buzz factor was off the hook. People were scared of it before they’d even seen it; they went as if submitting to a kind of ritual. Friedkin staged the movie with a cunning worthy of Hitchcock — the early scenes, like the one where Regan comes into the living room and pees on the carpet, have a hushed, almost classical creepiness — only to let the action erupt into a nightmare of such grotesque primal queasiness that it’s as if Hitchcock had dropped some very bad acid.

This, make no mistake, was the true start of our consuming and addictive culture of flamboyant make-believe. Before the deep voice of Darth Vader, there was the dark voice of Satan in “The Exorcist.” And the spectacle of a 12-year-old girl transformed into a blasphemous, fulminating, and demonically sexualized creature of hate seemed to embody every anxiety a culture could have about what might be happening to its children.

Friedkin may not have envisioned himself as a highbrow artist, but the power of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” lies in how furiously expressive they are. Friedkin, in many ways, used the cinema to say the unsayable: to show us that cops and criminals existed along the same continuum, and that even in the atheistic modern world, Satan lived. Yet once those two masterpiece were out of his system, he never again achieved anything close to that power of expression. He poured several years of his life into making “Sorcerer” (1977), an ambitious remake of the fabled 1953 French thriller “The Wages of Fear,” about four men driving a truckful of nitroglycerin over 218 miles of treacherous terrain. It went way over budget and became a notorious flop. In the years since, an idea about it has been elevated to the level of conspiracy theory: that “Sorcerer” would have been a big hit had it not been released the month after “Star Wars.”

Were the critics unkind? Maybe a little, but not really. “Sorcerer” is a well-engineered film, but the problem with it is that it felt impersonal in all its elaborate truck-suspense logistics. The film didn’t connect with anything emotional, and the fact that it came with a troublesome price tag was, perhaps, a symptom of how Friedkin now saw himself: as one of the creative kings of Hollywood. He had a right to see himself that way, but it’s still the kind of thinking that can strand you.

And by the time he made “Cruising,” his controversial hot-button 1980 thriller starring Al Pacino as a cop who infiltrates the seamy world of New York gay S&M clubs in order to catch a serial killer, Friedkin had lost the touch of authenticity that grounded his potency as a filmmaker. The movie was assailed, and rightly so, for its paranoid homophobia — that is, for the way it portrayed the transgressive side of gay sexuality as something ominous and fearful and threatening, as a place of inherent criminality.

Yet part of how the film’s blinkered worldview came across was in its bizarre semi-incoherence as a suspense drama. Friedkin, in 1970, had directed a trend-setting gay film — the now dated but still lively and trailblazing version of Mort Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” — but a decade later, he seemed both attracted and repelled by the S&M demimonde, and he never figured out how to put a human face on it. “Cruising” was a lavish zeitgeist exploitation film, and though artists like Quentin Tarantino and the Safdie brothers have since made claims for it, the film dealt Friedkin’s reputation a blow from which he never completely recovered.   

He did, however, have one more good movie in him. That was “To Live and Die in L.A.,” a 1986 thriller that tried to do for Los Angeles what “The French Connection” did for New York. It was really just a thin gloss on the earlier film, but Friedkin made it with a lurid sunset flair, especially in a car chase that goes the wrong way on the freeway, and in the performance he drew out of the young Willem Dafoe as a wily counterfeiter.

There was a cold quality to Friedkin’s work. That’s part of the power of “The Exorcist”: that he was willing to stare at the spectacle of demonic possession with such a terrifyingly objective gaze. Most of the films of the ’70s, for all their darkness, drew on a humanity that made them indelible. The catharsis offered by Friedkin was different. He wasn’t out to give you the warm fuzzies. He stripped life down to something brutal and essential — something that, in his greatest movies, can still possess you.

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