Ingmar Bergman’s Influence on The Exorcist

Forty years ago was a special year. “1973 began and ended with cries of pain,” wrote Roger Ebert. “It began with Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and it closed with William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Both films are about the weather of the human soul, and no two films could be more different. Yet each in its own way forces us to look inside, to experience horror, to confront the reality of human suffering.” Other critics have noted similarities between these two films, but only general ones. When I, on the other hand, watched Cries and Whispers, I saw its direct influence on The Exorcist in practically every other frame.

I’ve presented some shots of the most obvious homages. Some are general comparisons (like 3 and 9) and may have been more subconscious than deliberate efforts on Friedkin’s part. But most of them are rather blatant, and I wonder if Friedkin has ever owned up to them. I’m sure cinephiles and film scholars have noticed them, and probably more.

I’m not faulting Friedkin, on the contrary, I think Bergman’s influence is what helped make his own such a great film. Both are favorites of mine (both were nominated for Best Picture of 1973, and both lost to the inferior caper flick The Sting), and that’s probably why the similarities jump out at me. I should note that Friedkin finished shooting The Exorcist only four months after the release of Cries and Whispers, so it was evidently hot on his mind. I should also note that in none of my examples can the Exorcist imagery be derived from William Peter Blatty’s book (published in 1971) in any meaningful way. In fact, despite closely following Blatty, most of these examples aren’t from the book at all — because in essence, they’re from Cries and Whispers.

1. Opening shot of a statue. Blatty’s book starts right away in Iraq, but Friedkin’s film takes 30 seconds to pan over the McNeil house in Maryland and then linger on the shot of a church statue.

That’s exactly how Bergman began Cries and Whispers — by panning over the grounds of Agnes’ household, and in particular a statue.

2. Clock obsession. In Blatty’s book, no clock is described in the scene between Father Merrin and the curator of antiquities at Mosul. Friedkin’s film follows the book very closely in this scene, but he adds a pendulum clock, the hand of which suddenly stops swinging as Merrin handles the amulet of the demon.

Clock imagery abounds in Cries and Whispers, especially close-ups of pendulum hands.

3. House atmosphere. The success of The Exorcist has as much to do with the atmosphere of the entire McNeil house as what goes on in Regan’s bedroom. Long scenes and wide shots of solemn dread escalate an incredible tension that explodes when the screams start.

Cries and Whispers derives much of its success from the same kind of thing, and in this case it’s a staggering use of the color red that accentuates the pain and dread filling Agnes’ house.

4. Give the poor girl a bath. In Blatty’s book, Regan’s mother gives her a bath for the obvious reason she soiled herself (urinating on the floor through her nightie), but it’s mentioned in a single sentence, in passing. It’s something that might have even been skipped in a film, but Friedkin lingered on a bathtub scene…

…that strangely calls to mind the sponge bath given to Agnes in bed by her maid and sisters.

5. Agony on the bed. Superficially of course, Blatty’s book provides the basis for all of this. But Friedkin’s cinematic realization of Regan’s facial contortions and hideous screams owe directly, it seems…

… to those of Agnes, being relentlessly torn apart by the “demon” of womb cancer.

6. Agony on the bed (II). Then too, some of the wide shots with Regan writhing on her back and horrified onlookers…

…are practically lifted from Bergman’s film.

7. Vaginal mutilation. The crucifix stabbing/masturbation scene is in Blatty’s book, to be sure, but no filmmaker besides Friedkin would have shot a gory close-up like this involving a 12-year old. No filmmaker (outside of hard-core porn) has shot anything so vile ever since.

And when Friedkin filmed that shot, there is simply no way he couldn’t have been thinking of this close-up of Karin in Cries and Whispers, who mutilated herself with a piece of glass so that she wouldn’t have to suffer sex with her repulsive husband.

8. Relishing the blood. Regan’s face is not smeared with blood in Blatty’s book. In an interview Friedkin stated that he made her face bloody, to imply that she used the crucifix on her face as much as her crotch.

And that was a great idea, but I’m confident it was inspired by what Karin gleefully did to spite her husband in Cries and Whispers — smearing her face with the blood of her vaginal wounds.

9. Iconic climaxes. The image of Regan and the demon Pazuzu superimposed next to each other during the height of the exorcism is one of the film’s most powerful scenes (and doesn’t come from the book).

It makes me think Friedkin was trying for some kind of an arresting image like this — the bare-breasted Anna holding Agnes in her lap, which unnervingly evokes Michelangelo’s Pietà. Regardless of his conscious intentions, Friedkin’s shot has become as iconic as Bergman’s.

Walder Frey = Aragorn

In his recent interview about the Red Wedding, George Martin explains the medieval laws of hospitality which decreed that host and guest were not allowed to harm each other even if they were the worst enemies. This is what makes Walder Frey’s treachery beyond the pale: he offered Robb Stark the sacred peace of table-fellowship, and then had him slain under his roof as they feasted and danced. The Red Wedding has become legendary in the fantasy community, and the TV series did it full justice last Sunday. You can watch it here:

I started wondering about characters from other fantasies who are treacherous in the way of Walder Frey. The closest analogy I could come up with is a bit of a shocker: Aragorn, from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation. Aragorn’s beheading of the Mouth of Sauron is an outrageous act of murder that makes him a war criminal. The Mouth was an ambassador, under the equivalent of a flag of truce when negotiating with the enemy, and obviously had diplomatic immunity. As he says in Tolkien’s Return of the King, “I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed.” Gandalf agrees, replying that “you have naught to fear from us until your errand is done”. The Gandalf and Aragorn of Tolkien’s classic uphold the rules of diplomatic immunity; the Mouth of Sauron is under no physical danger from them, or from anyone in the Host of the West, during negotiations, even as the Mouth gloats over Frodo’s torture and the Ring being on its way to Sauron. Only when their meeting is over, and he retreats back through the Black Gate, does battle begin.

In Jackson’s film, however, Aragorn reacts like a dishonorable barbarian who in a fit of rage decapitates the Mouth. Watch here:

The purists were right that Tolkien would have been appalled. This Aragorn stoops to a level that’s obscene by even Jackson’s standards. Don’t get me wrong: unlike the purists, I applaud the move, as I like protagonists who are deeply flawed, and Tolkien’s were never flawed enough. I like the war-criminal Aragorn in the same way I like the “Clockwork Orange” Faramir whose rangers sadistically beat the daylights out of Gollum at the Forbidden Pool; it’s excellent drama. What Jackson’s Aragorn did was clearly wrong, but it makes him more interesting than Tolkien’s hero.

So there you have it. The film version of Aragorn is the closest fantasy analog to Walder Frey. Both did the unthinkable by murdering those under sacred immunity rights. The obvious objection to my analogy is that the people murdered by Walder Frey were decent and likeable, whereas the Mouth of Sauron was anything but, but that’s not the point. The fact that we identify with Aragorn’s pain and rage over Frodo doesn’t affect the conclusion here. Anger and helplessness are no excuse for murdering ambassadors at a negotiations meeting. (Jackson’s) Aragorn is just as treacherous as Walder Frey.