By all accounts, Billy Friedkin behaved terribly in the 70s. At the turn of the decade he was hot sh*t, a street kid who had paid his dues in TV—and now was ready to put his stamp on the hard R. Blend his chutzpah, his training, and his love of the French New Wave aesthetic of guerrilla filmmaking in a Cuisinart, and what do you get? At his best, three amazing movies: The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer.
Upping the ante on anti-heroics and taking a docu-realistic approach to pure cinema, The French Connection and The Exorcist look straight at what was then referred to by some tastemakers as the New Urban Gothic. These movies say something about moral and spiritual decay, but they never feel forced in that regard. They’re just really entertaining.
Friedkin’s ascension to Hollywood Valhalla is due to the Oscar-winning French Connection. It’s tempting to over-credit him with everything that makes the film tick, but what the hell: The director gets his due. Watch it again. Marvel at the pacing, the humor. The forward momentum that barely has time to ponder itself but raises the stakes, anyway. Feast on Gene Hackman’s pitch-perfect performance as Popeye Doyle, cinema’s best good/bad cop.
Considered shocking upon release, The Exorcist has only grown in stature. It feels less like an in-your-face gore-fest and more like a slow burn, a film that for all its violence is really a sorrowful tale about a priest who must stand face to face with the devil. And Friedkin makes you believe the devil exists.
Then there is Sorcerer, a remake of Henri Clouzot’s Wages of Fear that has to be one of the most intense action-suspense films. By turns primal and surreal, Sorcerer saw huge cost overruns. Friedkin and Bud Smith took forever to edit the footage. The title posed a marketing challenge to Universal Studios, and when the picture opened against Star Wars—well. Sorcerer tanked. That was unfortunate. It’s the man’s masterwork. And now that the cult campaign behind its resuscitation has allowed it to reach critical mass, the movie breathes on Blu-ray.
But Sorcerer premiered in 1977. In the past 40 years, what hath Friedkin wrought? Well, like several enfant terribles of 70s cinema, his hubris redounded on itself. Cruising was atmospheric but odd. To Live and Die in L.A. was scuzzy and slick and intermittently brilliant. Rampage was OK but… He had a hard time regaining his touch.
Friedkin is the sort of guy who seems to do his best work when his back is against the wall and he has something to prove—and, just maybe, he’s not afraid to be an ass in order to get his way. Attributing the excellence of a career director’s output to the degree to which he acts like a prick is silly; but there is something to be said for the quick and able-bodied F*ck You of the young, gifted and hungry. (Of course, it helped to be that way in the 70s, a time when the major studios conceded a great amount of creative control to a movie-mad bunch of upstarts like Friedkin.) You can see some of his old power in Killer Joe (2011), a low-budget sickie that shows the bear has some juice yet.