Today’s topic: the bizarre nature of director William Friedkin. If there is one weird director that I can listen to talk for hours it’s Friedkin. The name may sound unfamiliar to most readers but his filmography will immediately ring true – The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Sorcerer, To Live and Die in LA and one of his most popular later works, Killer Joe. Why do I call him bizarre and weird? Because his style is a style that is rarely seen in the world of movies: it’s so vague and yet so damn powerful. His shots are often out of focus, handheld, moving, and they often play mind games on the viewer. But because it’s Friedkin, it’s fun.
Friedkin is now eighty years old and still kicking strong, directing movies and keeping himself busy in the free time by directing operas in Torino, Italy. His first directorial effort was a documentary on a prisoner called Paul Crump who was charged with murder and robbery in the late 1950s and was supposed to be sent to the electric chair. Well guess what, the jury saw Friedkin’s documentary and decided to sentence the man to 39 years in a federal prison instead of killing him. Even Alfred Hitchcock admitted once that Friedkin was a director of great suspense, and that with the use of once scene he could build more suspense than any director with a whole movie. This documentary style and suspense language remained forever pinned down to every Friedkin project, however it is easiest to note in movies like The French Connection and The Sorcerer (also known as the remake of Wages of Fear). And that’s what I want to do. See why this style is so effective in these two early works of his.
The French Connection did not only win Friedkin an Oscar but it also put on the map as leading and supporting stars guys like Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider who later on went and became true movie icons, Gene with his appearances in movies like The Conversation, Hoosiers and Unforgiven and Scheider with the 1975 classic, Jaws. In the Connection these two great actors play real life based police detectives “Popeye” Doyle and “Cloudy” Russo, law enforcement agents who succeeded in the 1960s Brooklyn by making hundreds of arrest on major drug dealers. These two were reportedly the first ones to introduce the well known “Good cop, Bad cop” routine that we constantly see on police TV shows nowadays. And yes, Friedkin knows how to play his cards. When he introduces to us the characters he does it by toying around, from a distance. His camera tracks Popeye dressed in a Santa Claus costume singing Christmas carols with the neighborhood children and Cloudy is seen selling hot-dogs to by-passers. There is nothing fancy to it. Friedkin gives us the taste of the grit and grind of being an officer of the law in the dirtiest corners of this God forsaken earth. The camera pans continuously from left to right, unstable, shaky. The viewer can almost smell the smoke coming out of the chimney of a nearby restaurant. When Popeye and Cloudy try to make an arrest, chasing a small time junkie, the camera follows them but yet again, from a significant distance. Maybe Friedkin does not want us to be part of this. He’s teasing us with all this violent imagery and visually stunning gritty set pieces. He makes us run too. The camera tracks everything and we’re the ones who have to catch up with Friedkin’s tempo. His characters are often introduced as part of something larger, a group of people for example. But then, at the very end of the movie, they are more than just isolated from the rest of the world. They are aliens, who no one can understand. And sometimes they reach some levels of craziness that even they don’t recognize themselves. Like in the epic car chase sequence in the Connection, where Popeye drives 90 mph in a busy street trying to catch up with a fast running train above him. He’s chasing someone, a sniper. However at a certain point, Friedkin blurs the line between chasing the criminal and becoming a criminal and that is something that he repeats in his movies like the priest becoming the devil in The Exorcist and the secret service agent becoming a murderer in To Live and Die in LA. It’s a great thing because it’s natural, these blurred lines in our lives, and Friedkin knows how to capture it.
In The Sorcerer or Wages of Fear, four men on the run from the law are tied by a mission that starts off in a small South American town and ends in the bloody jungle. The mission is to transport a shipment of dangerously unstable nitroglycerin to an oil well 200 miles away by truck. It’s suicide, but the men, war veterans, petty thieves, murderers and corrupt politicians take it, because why not? At least they can challenge themselves one last time. As they go deeper and deeper into the wilderness of the Amazon, they become less and less human and more and more ghost-like. It is a scary transformation but again, Friedkin has a way of shooting inhumanity that no one else does. Even the slightest impact can destroy the trucks and send the four men to hell. The viewers are just there to observe. They have no say in what will happen next. If you’re watching, you’re pinned down to your seat praying for the trucks not to explode. The director underlines this craziness by shooting everything on location, in the real mud, in the real water and humidity, with real old, roaring trucks. But it’s this crazy attitude of his that makes his films human, natural and full of empathy for lost individuals, even when he’s dealing with possessed children and devilish priests.
That’s William Friedkin for you.