William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director and one of the most memorable filmmakers to emerge during the “New Hollywood” era in the 1970s, passed away at the age of 87 on Monday. Though he was also known for his big personality and ruthless candor, it’s Friedkin’s films that are impossible to forget: incredibly visceral movies that left long-lasting impressions. He approached genre cinema with European art house technique, making films that left craters in the culture with their impact. In his honor and memory, queue up one of his best films this week, you won’t be disappointed.
Of course, everyone knows Friedkin for his one-two punch in the early 1970s: “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist” (1973). The gritty cop thriller “The French Connection” won five Academy Awards, including best picture, best director for Friedkin, and best actor for star Gene Hackman, playing NYPD Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. It’s easily one of the greatest films ever made. Rent it on Amazon and iTunes.
Friedkin followed that up with the blockbuster horror feature “The Exorcist,” which also earned him a best director Oscar nomination, and was nominated for best picture. “The Exorcist” was, and remains, a cultural juggernaut, a film so shocking and scary that audiences fainted and collapsed, a horror film that was well-regarded enough to earn nods from the Academy (writer William Peter Blatty won an Oscar for his screenplay). It’s also inspired innumerable parodies and rip-offs. Its staying power is undoubtedly due to the boldness of Friedkin’s vision. Rent it on Amazon or iTunes.
In 1977, Friedkin directed “Sorcerer,” a film many (including Friedkin himself) consider his masterpiece, though it did not achieve the same success as his previous films (it was overshadowed by a little movie called “Star Wars”). Starring Roy Scheider, “Sorcerer” is an adaptation of the French novel, “Le Salaire de la peur,” and is considered a remake of the 1953 French film “The Wages of Fear.” It follows four disparate outcasts in a South American village who have to transport a cargo load of poorly kept dynamite. Rent on Amazon or iTunes.
1980 brought the infamous “Cruising,” starring Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover in New York City’s gay leather scene to track down a serial killer who is targeting gay men. Though the film was dogged by protests, notorious for the graphic scenes that were cut from the film, and critically reviled, it has become somewhat of a cult classic in recent years. See what all the fuss is about and rent it on Amazon and iTunes.
Side note: Friedkin’s wild L.A. neon-noir “To Live and Die in L.A.,” starring William Petersen and Willem Dafoe is not streaming anywhere, which is criminal. Seek out a video store and rent this or buy a copy sight unseen — you won’t regret it. Worth it for the Robby Müller cinematography alone.
Friedkin remained vital beyond his 1970s and ‘80s heyday, including his collaborations with actor and playwright Tracy Letts. He adapted two of Letts’ plays: the psychological thriller “Bug,” in 2007, starring Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd, and the black comedy “Killer Joe” in 2011. Rent both films on Amazon or iTunes, and “Bug” is also available to stream on Prime Video.
Friedkin wrote a memoir in 2013 titled “The Friedkin Connection,” but you can also get to know him through two 2019 documentaries. Filmmaker Francisco Zippel interviews Friedkin about his life and work in “Friedkin Uncut,” streaming on The Roku Channel, Tubi, Kanopy and available to rent elsewhere. There’s also “Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist” by Alexandre O. Phillipe, with the filmmaker reflecting on his iconic film. Watch it on AMC+, Kanopy, or rent elsewhere.
(Katie Walsh is the Tribune News Service film critic and co-host of the "Miami Nice" podcast.)
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