The Intensity of William Friedkin


In William Friedkin’s erotic thriller Jade (1995), Linda Fiorentino plays a psychology professor who specialises in the topic of “hysterical blindness”. She explains to her students that those who are in the grip of this condition are liable to commit unspeakably violent and perverse acts, because they are “blind to the darkness within”.


Hysteria and the darkness within are familiar states in Friedkin’s films. From the claustrophobic rendition of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1968) and the all-out Satanic horror of The Exorcist (1973) to the kinky, leather underworld of Cruising (1980) and the disquieting path of a serial killer in Rampage (1992), the director has often set out to shake and disturb his audience.


Yet, when asked by an audience member at a packed special Melbourne screening about this predilection for the dark side, Friedkin played down the too-easy association of his personality with his work. He conceded that “the dark side has served dramatists well”. But what drives him, as he made clear, is not primarily an intellectual interest in the morality of evil, but an attraction to the intensity that is offered by pure film.


In truth, Friedkin has made many kinds of movies. There are comedies like Good Times (1967) with Sonny and Cher, the true-life crime caper The Brink’s Job (1978) and the satire Deal of the Century (1983). His underrated sports movie Blue Chips (1994) generates an infectiously vulgar energy, embodied in the splendid performance by Nick Nolte.


Pure film for Friedkin covers far more than the jolts provided by horror movies or thrillers – genres in which he has excelled. As he told the Melbourne crowd, his love for staging car chase scenes, evident in his classic The French Connection (1971), came from admiring silent Buster Keaton comedies.


Time has put Friedkin’s career into an intriguing and paradoxical perspective. In the '70s, he was perceived as an innovative, cutting-edge, modernist director. The barrage of sights and sounds in The Exorcist, often deliberately hard to make out clearly, forged a link between Hollywood genres and the more arcane realms of experimental cinema.


Cruising, which I regard as a masterpiece of the ‘80s, takes Friedkin’s style to the furthest reaches of disorientation and ambiguity. In this mystery about a serial killer in the gay scene, Friedkin systematically confuses every variable of the culprit’s identity, including his body shape and voice tone. Inevitably, the cop (Al Pacino) who goes undercover to crack the case becomes psychologically contaminated by all this shape-shifting frenzy.


In his films of shock and dread, Friedkin has pursued many remarkable stylistic explorations. His favourite part of the filmmaking process is editing, and it shows. He is a master of the abrupt cut which whisks away a scene at its emotional height, leaving the audience momentarily perplexed as to its outcome.


Visually, he is a prodigiously inventive filmmaker. His determination to “never use the same shot twice”, which completely goes against the grain of standardised Hollywood production methods, was derived from viewing the art movies of Michelangelo Antonioni.


Less well recognised is Friedkin’s highly developed feeling for film sound. During his session in Melbourne he confided that he likes to edit to the accompaniment of music by the Australian band The Necks, and charmingly paused at one point to appreciate the soft sound of rain falling on the cinema’s roof.


Sound effects and musical tracks are put through their paces in Friedkin’s films. The composer Jack Nitzsche, when he appeared at Melbourne’s Cinesonic conference shortly before his death in 2000, recalled the director’s penchant for “stacking” – running several pieces of music at the same time. It was disconcerting, Nitzsche said, but it worked.


It is little wonder, with all these rampant ambiguities and assaults on the spectator, that the influential critic Robin Wood came to regard Friedkin in the '80s as a prime example of a filmmaker devoted to manufacturing “incoherent texts”. An equivocal Wood commented of Cruising that “its surface is deliberately fractured, the progress of the narrative obscured, in a way that one must recognise as extremely audacious within the Hollywood context, though not necessarily artistically successful”.


However, judgments of Friedkin’s artistic success must take account of another aspect of his career. From today’s vantage point, the director’s work appears equally classical and modernist. This is doubtless a legacy of his early, prodigious work in live television drama, recalled in his version of Twelve Angry Men (1997).


Amidst the flurry of wild effects and experiments, Friedkin has always shown a sure grasp of dramatic construction. Outside of the horror genre, the theme of the ‘darkness within’ modulates into a complex portrait of ethical binds and moral contradictions. Even in the military saga Rules of Engagement (2000), one of his lesser works, he was able to cut through the ideological cant and reveal some intriguing, underlying issues.


When asked in Melbourne which single scene in his career he had lavished the most painstaking attention on, Friedkin’s answer was surprising. It is a seemingly simple dialogue scene in The Exorcist between Lee J. Cobb and Ellen Burstyn, bristling with the subtext of facts unspoken and complicit understandings. “I choreographed it like a dance”, Friedkin declared, down to the smallest gesture of a hand on a teacup. The scene also reminds us what a fine director of actors Friedkin can be.


Friedkin came to Australia for the re-release of Sorcerer (1977), a film that has barely been seen locally, and only in a brutally truncated version. He regards this remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1952) as his personal favourite. It stands at the crossroads of his filmmaking trajectory, mixing gritty, downbeat realism with heightened action scenes, and an acute sense of world politics with some woolly, old-fashioned, pseudo-existentialist notion of ‘man’s fate’.


It has some extraordinary sequences, especially when trucks loaded with nitro-glycerine inch their way across flimsy bridges. I suspect that George Mad Max Miller may have mined Sorcerer for its striking imagery of vehicles as living beasts, and its association of a dying man with a spluttering truck. As always in Friedkin, the wall of sound (rain, engines, human cries) is overwhelming, and carefully integrated with the synthesised score by Tangerine Dream. And of all Friedkin’s movies it is the one most deeply plunged into the richness, variety and terror of the natural world, its landscapes and environments.


But, for once, pure film tends to obliterate the possibility of our interest in the characters and their personal stories. Friedkin today rues the fact that he missed out on casting Steve McQueen in the role played by Roy Scheider. “Now I know that a strong close-up is worth more than any landscape”, he comments, sensing that true star power in the Old Hollywood sense may have provided a dramatic core to the project.


Still, Sorcerer serves as another salutary tribute to the spirit of American cinema in the ‘70s, and a reminder of the possibilities that have since been foreclosed in a more corporate industry. Even the suspended, open ending which at the time seemed an obligatory ‘70s cliché now packs a wallop. William Friedkin knows the score: “You couldn’t get away with that ending today”.


MORE Friedkin: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

© Adrian Martin November 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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