I’ve been excited to get to William Friedkin in this blogathon of favorite film directors, and not just because he ruined my child-psyche with The Exorcist. He practically reinvented American cinema in the ’70s, but strangely, in the eyes of many, fell from grace after the ’80s. Not in mine. Amidst his ’90s “garbage” he crafted at least one masterpiece (even it was a remake), and in the last five years has had a serious comeback with two insanely wild Tracy Letts scripts. But even in mediocrity, Friedkin worked a magic that’s hard for me to define. He reveled in documentary-style realism, ’70s-style introspection, and searing intensities that remind me why I watch film: for emotional payoff to dramas that make us question the premises of our crazy world. Whether or not he’s aware of it, he seems to share Tolkien’s view of the “long defeat”, the idea that in every generation we must face evil in some form and oppose it — even if it’s just a temporary holding action or lost cause — while also confronting evil in ourselves. Happy endings are foreign here. Of the 20 films he’s done between 1967 and this year, here are my 10 favorites. This November installment comes a day early, as the top slot demands that it be featured on Halloween.
1. The Exorcist. 1973. 5+ stars. In this year-long blogathon, you will see me awarding three, and only three, films with a beyond-perfect rating of “5+”. This is one of them. It messed me up so badly when I was a kid that some nights I lay paralyzed in bed, afraid to fall asleep or stay awake. It starts out documentary-style in Iraq, then moves to the suburbs of Washington D.C., the terror building slowly — and with patient character development so typical of ’70s scripts — until it explodes into the mother of all horror films. Somehow Friedkin came up with exactly what you’d imagine a demon to look and sound and act like, and this one proceeds to beat the shit out of a 12-year old girl from the inside out. She speaks like the damned, pukes buckets of green, and reams herself bloody with crucifixes, until two priests finally intervene with a long ritual that kills them both. The girl is saved, but the power of good over evil is far from clear. Some continue to insist that The Exorcist is an unspeakable obscenity, and in many ways it is. It couldn’t have made in a decade other than the ’70s, and I state for a fact there will never again be a movie so frightening and well done.
2. 12 Angry Men. 1997. 5 stars. I’ve seen this so many times I can recite the dialogue, which is saying something since there’s nothing but, sharp and constant. It’s a rare case of a remake surpassing an excellent classic; that it hasn’t been released on DVD yet is insane. This time the jury room is populated by a good fraction of Afro-Americans, and better acting by all involved, to make the film more relevant. The best performance comes from Mykelti Williamson as racist juror #10, now a Muslim whose burning contempt for Hispanics and nasty put-downs draw the ire of the other black jurors. As for the two leads, George C. Scott is as good as his predecessor Lee J. Cobb, as the unyielding juror #3, and ditto for Jack Lemmon, who replaces Henry Fonda as moral crusader juror #8. Then there is Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays the shrewd intellectual antagonist, juror #4, who has always been my secret hero of 12 Angry Men. But they’re all good, each and every one, and their interactions almost too real to be staged. Hot tempers and shouting matches have never been more primal.
3. Bug. 2007. 5 stars. Ashley Judd proves she can act for a change, and goes completely batshit in the sweaty confined setting of a motel room where her universe swiftly collapses. Tracy Letts is the writer, adapting his own stage play about a woman who takes on the insanity of a dangerously paranoid boyfriend. Convinced that he’s infected by tiny insects that spy for the U.S. government, he claws himself apart, and yanks out his teeth with pliers, in order to rid himself of the perfidious “bugs”, and rants non-stop about government control, UFOs, and cult victims. The narrative crescendo builds until your nerves are screaming, and the sudden horrific ending — Agnes and Peter pour gasoline on themselves and light up — leaves you wondering what the hell you watched for the last two hours. Only Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf has dealt with the theme of contagious insanity so compellingly. Bug is one of those rare masterpieces that’s uncompromising in the way it assaults you, and has the courage of its convictions to keep the pedal to the floor all the way through.
4. Killer Joe. 2012. 4 ½ stars. Friedkin meets Tarantino. The script is again by Tracy Letts, and so chock full of sex and sadistic violence that it earns the NC-17 rating that would have been slapped on The Exorcist had the label existed back then. And if The Exorcist was about a family under attack by unstoppable evil, so is Killer Joe. Opposite ’80s films which saw hope in the nuclear family, this film kills that fantasy with cruelty, and it’s a Fargo-like comedy to boot, so you get filthy sick laughing your ass off. The story: a gambler can’t pay his debts and so hires a hit man to kill his mother for insurance money; because he can’t front the advance payment, he loans Killer Joe his sister for sex; the mother gets bumped off, but it turns out she left her money to someone else; things careen out of control — around misogynistic beatings and trailer-trash violence — to an outrageous climax involving a forced blowjob with a chicken leg, and an unforgettable “last supper”. I applaud Friedkin for sacrificing the financial payback that would have come with a censored R-rating.
5. Rampage. 1987. 4 stars. [1992 version: 2 stars.] In spite of being nominated for awards, this film is almost impossible to come by, or at least the ’87 version is. The ’92 version is a very different film. Basically, Friedkin made a gem whose distributor went under, and by the time he could get a new one had evidently become a strong advocate of the death penalty. The original version stacks the decks on both sides of the issue; the “official” version is a right-wing sermon. Both versions are based on real-life serial killer Richard Chase, who shot people in their homes, sodomized women’s corpses and drank their blood. It’s a gruesome thriller that becomes a courtroom drama focusing on the question of legal insanity, and in the well-done ’87 version we’re really not persuaded by either the prosecution or the defense, regardless of our own views. I, for one, endorse capital punishment for people like Chase (if you want to know why, see here), but that doesn’t mean I want to be preached to, even if I’m the choir. It’s so unlike Friedkin to trash artistry in favor of didacticism, and my guess is that he had (understandably) become so fed up with sentimental Hollywood agendas bashing the death penalty at every turn.
6. The French Connection. 1971. 4 stars. Most consider this Friedkin’s masterpiece after The Exorcist, but it’s a bit weak on character. Aside from that, it holds up well. It’s all atmosphere (cold New York greys) and suspense (stalking, chasing, shooting), and makes you long for the old days when filmmakers really understood suspense. Only recently did I learn the appalling reality behind the famous car chase, that Friedkin didn’t get permission from city officials, that he unleashed chaos on an unprepared New York, put people’s lives at risk and caused real accidents; it’s a miracle he and his crew weren’t arrested. The scenes of violence are well played, held in reserve until exactly the right moment, perhaps the most shocking one being the sniper shooting down at Gene Hackman’s character, but missing and hitting a lady with a baby carriage. Everything about The French Connection indicts old-fashioned police thrillers where the good guys can be counted on to prevail. Friedkin worked with real cops and portrays his cop-heroes as dirty as their profession requires; they don’t win in the end (the French druglord escapes) and even get punished by being transferred out of narcotics.
7. To Live and Die in L.A. 1985. 4 stars. The contemporary trappings stand out, but in a mostly good way, as they copy something decent that actually came out of the ’80s: Miami Vice. In fact, Michael Mann sued Friedkin for supposedly stealing the concept for this film. Like Sonny Crockett, Richard Chance is a cop who tries too hard to be cool, an obnoxious reaction to the Reagan years, playing fast and loose with the law when it fails to bring justice to scumbags. If you never tuned in to Miami Vice, you’d think this blurring of cops and criminals was near unprecedented. It’s also yet another showcasing for an exceptional car chase, this time barreling up a highway in the wrong direction. (It seems Friedkin felt obligated to push the envelope with a car chase once a decade: The French Connection in the ’70s, this one in the ’80s, and Jade in the ’90s.) It’s a revenge story at heart, as an unhinged cop does everything possible to bring down a counterfeiter who killed his partner.
8. Jade. 1995. 3 ½ stars. Of all the sore reputations in cinema, none have confounded me like Jade. Panned as a trashy murder mystery lacking substance, it’s for-God’s-sake not supposed to rely on “substance”, and certainly doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is — an erotic thriller with all the Joe Eszterhas usuals. (Frankly, I think Eszterhas did better with this script than Basic Instinct’s, though of course Friedkin notoriously tampered with it.) There are the obligatory blends of violence and sex; women who feed misogynist or feminist fantasies, depending on your point of view. The camera’s attention to exotic masks becomes a metaphor for the deeper, invisible masks worn by everyone: the assistant DA’s renegade detectives, his best friend and jealous rival, and, of course, the enigmatic Jade herself. Then there’s, yes, a superb car chase, which, no, isn’t French Connection worthy, but still damn impressive, and I’m tough to please with car scenes. Jade is no masterpiece, but for me it’s very enjoyable, and I can understand why Friedkin calls it one of his favorite creations.
9. Rules of Engagement. 2000. 3 ½ stars. Another thriller-courtroom drama, but a more mainstream effort than Rampage. This one too has the balls to flip off Hollywood liberalism, but in the right way, unlike Rampage’s later version which could only bash it through an equally problematic opposite bias. Here we are made to identify with a marine colonel who murders a prisoner of war and orders fire on a crowd of protesters, as he had good reasons for doing both. Those who accuse this film of being anti-Arab are fools. An examination of the difficulties soldiers face under threat of terrorism is in no way racist, and Friedkin was right to dismiss these accusations with contempt. He used the jihadist milieu to put ethical question marks over the U.S. military’s rules of engagement in dealing with hostile civilian crowds, while at the same time skewering government officials who scapegoat soldiers instead of accepting responsibility in complex situations. He did this quite well, and Samuel Jackson plays the marine colonel under court martial superbly.
10. Sorcerer. 1977. 3 stars. This is one of those commercial disasters turned cult classic, and its release at the time of Star Wars had everything to do with it. One might even say that the two films symbolize the falling out of a certain genre (gritty ’70s amorality) alongside the ascendance of another (action blockbusters). And make no mistake, Sorcerer is gritty as they come. Four high-profile criminals from different countries are hiding out in South America, living in conditions so squalid and hideous you can almost feel the reek of disease. They hook up taking a high-paying job, which involves driving trucks containing unstable explosives through impossible wilderness obstacles — the famous sequence being the teetering off a rotten bridge (see left). I never warmed to Sorcerer as much as the cult-following has, but it is a decent film that deserved better than being overshadowed when it did. The Tangerine Dream scoring is fantastic; the characters a bit hard to care about; the fantasy title makes no sense at all.
Next month: Terrence Malick.