Friedkin, William

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Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, 29 August 1939. Family: Married 1) Jeanne Moreau, 1977 (divorced); 2) Lesley-Anne Down, 1982 (divorced), one son; 3) Sherry Lansing. Career: Mailroom assistant, then studio floor manager, WGN-TV, Chicago, 1955; TV director, 1957–67; partner, with Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, in the Directors Company, 1973 (withdrew, 1974). Awards: Oscar for Best Director, for The French Connection, 1971. Agent: c/o Edgar Gross International Business Management, 9696 Culver Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232, U.S.A.

Films as Director:


Good Times


The Night They Raided Minsky's; The Birthday Party


The Boys in the Band


The French Connection


The Exorcist


Sorcerer (Wages of Fear)


The Brinks Job


Cruising (+ sc)


Duet for One


The Deal of the Century


To Live and Die in L.A. (+ sc); Sea Trial


Judgement Day


The Guardian (+ co-sc)


Rampage (+ co-sc)


Blue Chips




Twelve Angry Men (for TV)


Rules of Engagement


By FRIEDKIN: articles—

"Anatomy of a Chase," in Take One (Montreal), July/August 1971.

"Photographing The French Connection," with Herb Lightman, in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), February 1972.

Interview with M. Shedlin, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1972.

"Dialogue on Film: William Friedkin," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), February/March 1974.

"Mervyn Leroy Talks with William Friedkin," in Action (Los Angeles), November/December 1974.

Interview with R. Appelbaum, in Films and Filming (London), March 1979.

Interview with R. Gentry, in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Spring/Summer and Fall 1986.

Interview, in American Film, December 1990.

"Greenland," an interview with N. Segaloff, in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1993.

"Lucifer Rising," an interview with Mark Kermode, in Sight andSound (London), July 1998.

On FRIEDKIN: book—

Segaloff, Nat, Hurricane Billy: The Career of William Friedkin, New York, 1989.

Clagett, Thomas D., William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession, and Reality, Jefferson, 1990.

On FRIEDKIN: articles—

Maslin, Janet, "Friedkin Defends His Cruising," in New York Times, 18 September 1979.

"William Friedkin," in Film Dope (London), September 1979.

Gentry, R., "Louma Crane and William Friedkin," in AmericanCinematographer (Los Angeles), August 1985.

Bornet, J., "William Friedkin: le chaos final," in Revue du Cinéma, July/August 1990.

Spotnitz, F., "William Friedkin," in American Film, December 1990.

Everschor, Franz, in Film-Dienst (Cologne), 23 April 1996.

Jansen, Peter W., "Wege zu Lolita," in Filmbulletin (Winterthur), August 1997.

Vachaud, Laurent, in Positif (Paris), February 1998.

Kermode, Mark, and Paul Burston, "Cruse Control/So Good It Hurts," in Sight and Sound (London), November 1998.

* * *

The success, both critical and commercial, of William Friedkin's films has been uneven since the release of his first feature in 1967. Although his works span several different genres, they share some common thematic and technical characteristics. His heroes are nontraditional and find themselves in unconventional situations or environments foreign to the average viewer. Technically, Friedkin often seems more concerned with creating mood and establishing atmosphere than with the progress of the narrative or character development. His great attention to detail and characteristic use of long establishing shot sequences do create mood and atmosphere but often do not contribute to the film as a whole.

In two of Friedkin's early films, The Birthday Party and The Boys in the Band (both based on stage productions), the use of establishing prologues works very well. The Birthday Party begins with an early morning shot of a deserted beach. Empty canvas beach chairs look out over an unnatural vastness of sameness—a seemingly endless grayish blue ocean that disappears into a grayish blue sky. This slightly unsettling visual sets the mood for Harold Pinter's play. To the beginning of The Boys in the Band, Friedkin adds a montage prologue that introduces all of the main characters. But these are the only personal interpretations evident in these two works.

In The Night They Raided Minsky's, Friedkin's attention to detail successfully establishes 1920s period authenticity and adds to a richness of character missing in his other works. The film was criticized, however, for having too broad a narrative told through overly long sequences that do not contribute to the story. This characteristic would prove to be a major flaw of several of Friedkin's subsequent films. Friedkin's two most popular films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, have some aspects in common. In addition to nontraditional heroes in unusual situations, both films have broad narratives expressed through similar filmic techniques: minimal dialogue; long, detailed sequences; and documentary-style use of the camera.

The French Connection, Friedkin's most critically acclaimed work, maintains a precarious balance between becoming tedious to watch and portraying the tedium and fatigue of Jimmy Doyle and Buddy Russo's lives. Friedkin uses a long prologue to establish the drug operation in Marseilles. This sequence, filmed with little dialogue and great attention to detail, not only serves to introduce the drug operation but also to contrast the lifestyles of French narcotics dealer Alain Charnier and New York City cops Doyle and Russo. This very long sequence is followed by another that establishes the cops' personalities and beat. Consequently, it takes quite some time before the actual narrative begins.

Friedkin's ability to create atmosphere does work well in The French Connection because the environment itself, New York City, is one of the main characters. The city and its inhabitants are depicted in detail. The scenes—sometimes gritty, sometimes gory, sometimes dull—produce the urban reality, and at the same time reflect the reality of policework, which is also sometimes dull, but sometimes dangerous.

The Exorcist, a commercially successful film, is tedious throughout. The film plods along through an excessively long opening sequence (the significance of which is never made clear), a pseudo psychological explanation of the character Father Karras, countless close-ups of "meaningful" facial expressions, and predictable stages in both the possession and exorcism of Regan MacNeil. Friedkin does succeed at times in creating tension and suspense, but this mood is not sustained throughout the film. Apparently, the shock value of watching the disturbing physical transformation of Regan from young girl to hideous monster is enough to maintain viewer interest, since this continues to be a popular film.

Sorcerer did not follow the trend of commercial success begun by the two previous films. A remake of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer is a good action adventure once the story finally gets underway. Like other Friedkin films, it is weighed down by several long introductory sequences. After these initial sequences, the use of documentary technique, including hand-held tracking shots, creates a reality of place that can almost be smelled and touched.

Friedkin's subsequent films contain his characteristic cinematic techniques. His filmic representation of the sadomasochistic homosexual subculture in New York City in Cruising is too realistic and brutal for many reviewers. Deal of the Century, although not commercially or critically popular, is a fair satire on the profitable business of selling arms to Third World nations, using an introductory sequence very effectively to set the tone.

The Guardian, Friedkin's first horror film since The Exorcist, was not well received critically or at the box office. As in The Exorcist, Friedkin employs an unconventional situation for the narrative and uses mood and atmosphere to gradually turn reality into a nightmare. Unlike the narrative in The Exorcist, however, this story of a yuppie couple who hire a nanny that feeds newborns to trees is told on a much smaller scale, but still is not consistently interesting. Jade, Friedkin's most recent feature, has been criticized not only for unsuccessful attempts to establish mood that bog down the narrative, but also for unoriginal dialogue and stale action sequences. The screenwriter of Jade, Joe Eszterhas, is equally credited for the film's flaws, along with Friedkin, in many critical reviews.

—Marie Saeli

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