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R.I.P. William Friedkin
William Friedkin, the director best known for the archetypal 1970s blockbusters The Exorcist and The French Connection, has died at the age 87.
Friedkin was famously part of the '70s New Hollywood movement - the group of young bucks who stormed in and revitalized Hollywood's then-failing studio system. You've probably never heard of it. No big deal. It also included a bunch of under-the-radar filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader, and some dude named Steven Spielberg. These guys all grew up with all of the Hollywood Golden Age classics - your Citizen Kanes and Casablancas and Shanes - and many of them came out of the very first generation of film school graduates. But their coming-of-age coincided with the ascent of European arthouse films. Most notably, the French New Wave, which gave us cinematic heavyweights like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Agnès Varda, really took off right as these Americans were getting serious about making movies. Since the U.S. studios were hemorrhaging money, they basically gave the keys to the kingdom to these kids, and the kids responded by melding the two sensibilities, thereby revolutionizing the medium of film forever and all time.
Friedkin, specifically, came from a background in documentary filmmaking. His breakthrough, 1971's The French Connection, married that form's unsentimental objectivity with American cop thrillers and the French New Wave's formal daring - and changed the way crime movies have been produced and consumed ever since. The idea of a mainstream Hollywood film featuring a bunch of nobodies who didn't look like movie stars playing often-reprehensible "heroes" in a picture shot in a run n' gun, handheld style was unthinkable when The French Connection was released. It was a box office smash that won five Oscars (including a Best Director statuette for Friedkin), launched the careers of Gene Hackman and Roy Schieder, and continues to be one of the most influential action movies ever made. Without The French Connection, we probably never get other morally-complex cop dramas like Heat and Training Day, and we almost certainly never see the cinéma vérité style applied to other car chases and shoot-'em-ups like the Bourne movies.
Friedkin followed-up The French Connection with The Exorcist, which is arguably still the best horror movie ever made. For those us born after its release in 1973, I don't think we'll ever be able to quite grasp how shocking the movie was to audiences at the time.
But even in the modern context of having had approximately twice as many exorcism movies as any other kind of film, The Exorcist is mind-blowingly well-made. If you've never seen the movie with a big audiences, I urge you to do so the next time you have the chance - this motherfucker plays, man. There's a reason it's been ripped-off so many times in the fifty years since it came out.
New Hollywood basically fell apart in the late '70s and early '80s, when many of its directors, at the zenith of their powers, made self-indulgent, expensive bombs just as Spielberg and Lucas were creating a new new type of mega-hit. Sorcerer, Friedkin's remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 French thriller The Wages of Fear, was released in June of '77 - just a month after Star Wars. It got clobbered, which is a crying shame; Sorcerer is excellent, the rare remake that stands on its own apart from the original. It has all the pathos and philosophical angst of other New Hollywood films, plus some absolutely bonkers nail-biting moments of suspense. It's much better-appreciated now than it was then, but it's still not as well-known of a movie as it deserves to be.
The truth is, at least in terms of quality, Friedkin didn't really go off the rails (or off the rickety bridge, I suppose) until after Sorcerer, when he made a string of movies that were either forgettable (like, I literally forgot that Deal of the Century and Rules of Engagement existed until just now) or just bad (I know some people love To Live and Die in L.A., but I think those people are nuts). Some of those movies, like the ridiculously misguided Cruising, are bad in a really interesting way, but some of them, like the ridiculously misguided Jade, are worthy of disparagement they've received.
Interestingly enough, Friedkin got some of his mojo back - creatively, if not at the box office - in the 21st century. In 2003, he made The Hunted, which is a kind of First Blood-esque military thriller that isn't great, but has some extended, dialogue-free action sequences that are totally boss. Then, in 2006 and 2011, he collaborated wh Tracy Letts, one of the best writers working today, on adaptations of Letts' plays Bug and Killer Joe. Bug, a paranoid psychological thriller that felt especially relevant in the years following the invasion of Iraq, is terrific... but Killer Joe, a pitch-black hitman comedy that reaches Pinter-esque levels of nihilistic absurdity, is REALLY terrific. Matthew McConaughey, cast against type as the titular assassin, is extremely menacing, and Juno Temple's performance as the object of Joe's lust is next-level.
Friedkin recently completed The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a new adaptation of Herman Wouk's play (it was previously made into a movie, called simply The Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, and Fred MacMurray). The film, which co-stars the also-recently-deceased Lance Reddick, is set to debut next month at the Venice International Film Festival. A month after that will see the release of the latest Exorcist sequel, The Exorcist: Believer. Maybe Friedkin wasn't the household name some of his peers have been, but his cinematic fingerprints, clearly, ain't goin' anywhere.