Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Director William Friedkin on the set. (Photo: William Friedkin via Facebook)

Cinema lost a defining voice when William Friedkin died Aug. 7 from heart failure. Friedkin, 87, was vital to what is considered the greatest era of American cinema, the American New Wave (loosely the late 1960s to early 1980s and also called “New Hollywood”), in which directors shot on location and were able to craft their visions without studio interference. The movement produced instant classics including Coppola’s “Godfather ” films, Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver ” (1976), Polanski’s “Chinatown ” (1974) and Friedkin’s hardboiled crime drama, “The French Connection” (1971).

Born in Chicago, Friedkin, like other era directors Sidney Lumet (“Dog Day Afternoon, ” “Serpico”) and John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate, ” “Ronin”) cut his teeth in TV (“The Alfred Hitchcock Hour”). His first feature-length work was “The Thin Blue Line (1966), a documentary that chronicled the difficulties confronting police at a time crime and violent public protests were on the rise; it proved to be prep work for “Connection,” an on-the-street magnum opus based on the true account of a cat-and-mouse heroin sting by Boston-born Robin Moore, who also wrote “The Green Berets.” In between, Friedkin made the poorly received Sonny and Cher hodgepodge “Good Times” (1967), adapted Harold Pinter’s play “The Birthday Party” (1968) starring Robert Shaw, and helmed the light comedy “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1960) about a naive young Amish woman (Britt Ekland) who arrives in New York City to perform in a religious production that turns out to be a burlesque show. Friedkin next pushed boundaries with the 1970 adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play “The Boys in the Band, ” a claustrophobic house party where gay and bisexual young males divulge travails largely caused or triggered by unaccepting families and society. The film (recently remade by Netflix for the play’s 50th anniversary) was semi-controversial in part because of the material, but also because Friedkin had claimed he had been “cruised ” while researching the film. His controversies with the gay community and mainstream would rise to another level in 1980 with “Cruising,” the sexually graphic S&M thriller based on Gerald Walker’s novel about a serial killer stalking New York City’s underground gay clubs.

There’s little question that Friedkin’s career will be defined by “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” (1973), which not only captivated filmgoers but redefined the boundaries of what was possible with onscreen car chases and the horror genre. When on his game, Friedkin was a master of mood, vision and pacing. He also possessed deep admiration and love for his characters, especially the flawed and those living on the edge or under life-smothering pressure. The prime example is Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle in “Connection,” a cocksure cop seeking redemption for failures but who is imbued with an avuncular twinkle in his eye, a hair-trigger temper and a barroom manner that screams old-school Boston. (Speaking of which, Friedkin did make a movie here – “The Brink’s Job, ” another true-crime drama about an infamous 1950 North End heist; it’d make the perfect double bill with Ben Affleck’s “The Town.”) Even more emotionally visceral was Ellen Burstyn’s imperiled mother in “The Exorcist,” desperate and unnerved by not knowing of what is wrong with her demon-possessed daughter (Linda Blair, forever locked into genre due to the role) and hapless in her efforts to help. Her harrowing performance took a battle ax to nurturing parental nerve. Burstyn was nominated for her struggling single mom; Hackman won Best Actor for his gruff, gritty portrayal of Doyle.

In the cinematic universe of multiverses, CGI and green screens, it’s refreshing to see how well “The Exorcist ” and “Connection” have held up. Their timelessness is notched in part because they’re both deeply character-driven films, but also because of Friedkin’s shrewd, put-you-in-the-scene filmmaking. With “The Exorcist,” the paralyzing chill was psychological, achieved by grafting a gravelly, sinister male baritone onto a 12-year-old girl, some ingenious (and grotesque) makeup, a few cinematic sleights of hand (levitation, 180-degree neck rotation) and that devilish spewing of split pea soup. There was essentially no bloodletting to make you wince, yet you did, and the deft sound editing and use of Michael Oldfield’s soul-rattling “Tubular Bells ” only served to deepen the film’s immersive eeriness.

With “Connection,” Friedkin not only made one of the greatest car chase sequences ever put on screen, but perhaps the perfect film. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture and Director (Friedkin beat out Kubrick, who was up for “A Clockwork Orange”) – feats that seem even more monumental when you consider the city-sprawling film was made for less than $2 million, or $15.4 million in today’s dollars, and featured a cast of relative unknowns. It also won Best Editing and should have won for sound editing, as those elements are so essential to that jaw-dropping chase scene in which Doyle, in a commandeered Pontiac LeMans, races after an aboveground subway train taken over at gunpoint by a ruthless French hitman (Marcel Bozzuffi). It’s a gorgeously choreographed sequence that begins at Doyle’s apartment complex (where the hitman tries to take out Doyle with a sniper rifle) and becomes something of a bravura brutalist ballet of action as it rifles through the twisted steel girders of an erected subway structure and litter-strewn streets of Brooklyn. When in that careening Pontiac, the sound and film editing are so tight that everything feels like it’s happening in the moment and at 80 mph as Doyle plows through fruit carts and smash-bang ricochets off other vehicles making their rightful way through an intersection. The chase took more than five weeks to shoot and covers more than 26 New York City blocks. The rewards of the effort are self-evident and cemented in cinematic legacy.

That riveting result, however, should be no surprise, as producer Philip D’Antoni had also worked on the too-cool-for-political-subplots Steve McQueen cop vehicle “Bullitt ” (1968) and would later direct his only feature, “The Seven-Ups” (1973), starring “Connection” co-stars Roy Scheider and Tony Lo Bianco, notching three of the greatest car chase sequences committed to celluloid (including “Connection”). It was filmmaking at its very best, with the filmmakers earning every nerve-rattling inch or mile, not some post-production AI spitting out “Fast and Furious” crash-bang video game pablum.

And as much as D’Antoni’s fingerprints are on “Connection,” it was Friedkin’s full visionary control – especially in postproduction – that delivered the symphonic, neo-noirish masterpiece. Friedkin would later prove that his accomplishment was not a one-off with a harrowing, wrong-way chase down a freeway in “To Live and Die in L.A. ” (1985). That deft day-glo crime thriller introduced us to Willem Dafoe and was what made me fall in love with film after Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961). The week it opened, I went to see “To Live and Die in L.A.” on a whim because my roommate at the time, wounded from a breakup, needed solace and friendship and was a huge Wang Chung fan, and the techno dance band scored the film; so on a hungover Saturday we did “To Live and Die in L.A. ” That chaotic freeway scene – the perfect antithesis to the impressive long-take opener of “La La Land ” – ignited a Friedkin deep dive for me and my roomie. Back then you’d pay $100 to rent a VCR for a weekend and $6 per video, and for my birthday that year we ate gloriously greasy Chinese food, drank far too many sugary mai tais at some long-gone place by the Berklee College of Music and watched all we could, even taking in a second helping of Friedkin’s movie at the old Cinema 57 in the bottom of what is now the Revere Hotel Boston Common on Stuart Street. Sadly, “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “The Brink’s Job” are not available for streaming (so if you see either on a repertory slate, run to the box office). Director Michael Mann (“Thief, ” “Heat”) sued Friedkin over “To Live and Die in L.A.,” claiming it ripped off his “Miami Vice” TV series that ran 1984-1989. Mann lost.

Friedkin, who died in the Bel Air home he shared with wife Sherry Lansing, former head of Paramount, has a Cambridge connection. In 2014, he gifted some of his memoirs to the Harvard Film Archive; earlier, as part of the “Uncanny Cinema of William Friedkin” program there, the director took on a brief residency and appeared at screenings of his films to provide anecdotes about their making – most intriguingly, the scores. (Quick pause here to acknowledge Don Ellis’ foreboding “Connection” score, which echoes Doyle’s inner turmoil and captures the drab, coarse ambiance of the street). I had the opportunity to catch “Sorcerer” (1977), Friedkin’s bold remake of the Henri-Georges Clouzot classic “The Wages of Fear” (1953), about four men transporting nitroglycerin across a treacherous Latin American jungle to cap an exploded oil well 200 miles away. After the screening, Friedkin discussed how Steve McQueen was supposed to play the lead role taken by Scheider, but McQueen wanted a part for his girlfriend Ali MacGraw (“Love Story”). “I told him, it’s a movie about four guys in a jungle, ” Friedkin said. The lack of MacGraw in the project proved a deal breaker. Friedkin then recounted how he got the German techno band Tangerine Dream to score the film, a total happenstance resulting from Friedkin, in Germany to oversee the dubbing of “The Exorcist, ” being taken to a party at an abandoned church in the Black Forest. The band was Tangerine Dream. Friedkin remarked that the score was particularly impressive in that they didn’t see any dailies or postproduction material, just the script. The same was true with Wang Chung and “To Live and Die in L.A.” – the director and musicians met at an L.A. radio station. When Friedkin gave the band the script, he said he didn’t want a tune with the title in it. Natch, the song “To Live and Die in L.A.” plays during the closing credits.

“To Live and Die in L.A.” would prove to be Friedkin’s swan song of sorts. He tried to create lightning in a bottle again with the erotic crime thriller “Jade” (1995) with Linda Fiorentino, hot off her sizzling femme fatal turn in “The Last Seduction” (1994), but the script proved a flat “Basic Instinct”-esque pretender and the car chase sequence that included San Francisco’s winding Lombard Street was a painful-to-watch rehash of that epic L.A. freeway misdirection. Friedkin even tried going back to the demonic with a possessed tree in “The Guardian” (1990). He found some middle ground with A-list actors in the psychological thrillers “Bug” (2006) with Ashley Judd and “The Hunted ” (2003) with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro. He rounded out his career on a high note (we won’t mention 2017’s “The Devil and Father Amorth,” and he does have a play adaptation of Herman Wouk’s “Caine Mutiny ” in the can) with “Killer Joe” (2011), an adaptation of a Tracy Letts play (“Bug” was also a Letts play) about a contract killer (Matthew McConaughey) out to score a life insurance payout for a thwarted son (Emile Hirsch). Two Friedkin films I’d say are unique curios meant for discerning eyes are “Blue Chips” (1994) with Nick Nolte as a Bobby Knight-like college basketball coach trying to get though one more season (Celtics Bob Cousy and Shaquille O’Neal have small roles) and the long-shelved “Rampage ” (1987) about a demonic mass murderer (Alex MacArthur) and the DA trying to put him away (Michael Biehn). Friedkin did do a nice job with his 1997 television version of “12 Angry Men” featuring a knockout cast that included Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Ossie Davis, Edward James Olmos, Hume Cronyn, James Gandolfini and William Peterson of “To Live and Die in L.A.”

Friedkin was both a traditionalist and an iconoclast when it came to his trade and wears the “maverick” tag well in an era that preceded the blockbuster. His work heightened the filmgoing experience with old-school craftsmanship, control and tight collaborative efforts from cast and crew. He broke ground in genre and how narrative is paced and told (he’s right there with Kurosawa, Tarantino and Fellini), and most of all, he was able to put the audience in the action without bit-and-byte trickery. “The French Connection” will live on as one of the few films to achieve perfection from frame one to the end credits. It is Friedkin’s well-earned legacy.