Bright Lights Film Journal

Dark Truths: Notes on William Friedkin

Presenting the impresario of the deviant demimonde: William Friedkin

William Friedkin’s career is a study in contradictions. A liberal intellectual by nature who made two of the most notorious works of queer cinema — The Boys in the Band (1970) and Cruising (1980) — he’s long been one of the gay community’s demons. Seemingly innocent comedies like the Sonny and Cher vehicle Good Times (1967) and that loving paean to vaudeville, The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), were soon followed by brutal policiers (The French Connection, 1971) and nihilistic gorefests (The Exorcist, 1973). Friedkin’s vision is broad enough to support both the popular hackwork of Robin Moore or William Peter Blatty, and the high-class high jinks of Harold Pinter. The trick is that, for the most part, Friedkin shows little fidelity to his sources. Readers of The French Connection won’t recognize that book in the movie, just as his version of Cruising mostly jettisoned the original story.

Friedkin uses his sources simply as a springboard for his own unerringly bleak world-view; he sees life as a grim mystery that can never be solved and refuses to offer pat solutions. Human identity is wavering, unstable, violent; thus even in a Joe Esterzhaus-scripted potboiler like Jade (1995) a respected psychologist has a double life as a whore; in Cruising a respected cop may be a closet case and gay-killer; in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) the so-called bad guys appear as intelligent and refined businessmen, while the cops are slobbering psychos so out of control they kill their own comrades. Sometimes this refusal to clarify the characters and their activities backfires; much has been made of the opaque plot of Cruising, and Friedkin himself fueled that fire with comments like “I myself was not sure whether there was one killer or more than one. It’s ambiguous.”

Friedkin’s insistence on telling his dark truths — “there is no subject that is off limits to a filmmaker,” he once said — has resulted in a career studded with controversy and breakthroughs. Many newspapers (including the Los Angeles Times) refused to even run the original ad for The Boys in the Band (“It’s Harold’s birthday; this is Harold’s present” — over a picture of fetching hustler Robert LaTourneaux) but the film, a first in forcing a skittish public to take a close look at the particulars of gay life, became part of cinema legend anyway. In The Exorcist Friedkin rubs audiences’ noses in demon possession, the failure of religion, and the foulest-mouthed teenybopper in movie history. (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” surely belongs in Bartlett’s as one of the most-quoted-ever lines.) Not surprisingly, one astute theater manager had his staff carry smelling salts and scatter kitty litter through the aisles to absorb the vomit that poured out of retching viewers. The French Connection was another groundbreaker. It set the standard for modern chase scenes in Popeye Doyle’s breathtaking tear through New York City that many still believe resulted in injuries. (Friedkin himself manned one of the cameras for this white-knuckle ride.)

Friedkin’s specialty is the deviant demimonde — the leather scene in Cruising, the criminal underground in so many of the films — and the fiercely bound band of outsiders who populate it. He also usually includes a troubled, often naive outsider, a spectator who stands in for the audience observing this demimonde in action. In The Boys in the Band it’s the possible straight Alan, who’s there to give voice — and it’s not a pretty sound — to middlebrow homophobia. In Jade it’s David, the straitlaced cop who, like the audience, is helplessly pulled into an increasingly squalid, chaotic world of “sex, money, and power.” But Friedkin himself is in many ways a neutral observer, exploring his subterranean worlds without judging them. If anything, his sympathies are closer to the “criminals” — he makes their vitality and power appealing by simply holding up a mirror to them. In The French Connection the drug dealers, about whom we learn little, seem more human than Gene Hackman’s pathological Popeye. In Cruising — clueless queer critics to the contrary — it’s the leather boys who are the targeted innocents, gyrating and popper-sniffing their way to a pleasure that harms no one, while the cops (read: society) are shaking down, brutalizing, raping, and probably murdering gays.

What makes Friedkin’s disturbing, seemingly unpalatable films work so effective are his brilliant formal manipulations. The man who says he doesn’t know how many killers there are in Cruising has also been called “the purest and most impersonal technician” in cinema. The exorcism sequence in The Exorcist, the chase scenes in The French Connection, Jade, and To Live and Die in L.A., and the murders in Cruising are bravura examples of formal control. Friedkin’s perfectionism alienated some actors and crew members, but his dynamic cutting and subtle sound manipulations force the viewer to live the action in a way few other modern filmmakers have achieved. This is Friedkin’s genius: making audiences come to terms with what the title character in Jade calls “the darkness within us.” This “darkness” pervades the films; in Sorcerer, Friedkin’s tense remake of Clouzot’s classic Wages of Fear, what starts as a dangerous trek through the jungle soon becomes an exercise in existential terror, made real by the director’s superb staging of this difficult material and his gradual envelopment of his characters in chaos.

In recent years Friedkin has worked as much in TV as in movies, on shows like The Twilight Zone, C.A.T. Squad, and even an episode of Tales from the Crypt. This may be less an indicator of his failings than a sign that, in spite of his past successes, the culture no longer wishes to accommodate an artist so critical of the philosophical and social status quo.