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.

4 thoughts on “Ingmar Bergman’s Influence on The Exorcist

  1. The Exorcist began shooting in August 72, and finished as you say in April 73, so if Cries & Whispers was released at Christmas time, presumably all your examples were filmed in the last 4 months and not the previous 5.

  2. Loren, I have noticed the uncanny surface similarities between the two films, and I made passing mention of it when I wrote a small blurb on it a while back. It's great to see all these things highlighted in such depth here, but you forgot to mention Max Von Sydow's presence, which seems the most obvious of all. Also, Friedkin uses a lot of fairly fast zooms that emulate those of Bergman, and otherwise haven't really come to define Friedkin's use of the camera since.

  3. @Anonymous: Yes, that's right. Even the Iraq scenes (one being the clock in the curator's office) were shot last, though they are the beginning of the film.

    @Carson: I forgot about that blurb, and nice to see you apprehending the clocks too. Of course, Max Von Sydow is not in Cries and Whispers, which is the only Bergman film I was focusing on in this post. But you're actually anticipating me by drawing on other Bergman films. I'm preparing a Part 2 to this post, as The Exorcist appears to rip off Persona too. So stay tuned.

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