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The Essentials: The 5 Best William Friedkin Films

by The Playlist Staff
July 30, 2012 12:00 PM
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The decent opening weekend for the NC-17 "Killer Joe" should be celebrated for a number of reasons, but perhaps most notably, it marks something of a comeback for director William Friedkin. The helmer was, for a brief period in the 1970s, the most powerful filmmaker in Hollywood, but a series of critical and commercial flops after "The Exorcist" saw his stock drop quickly, and while there were a few quiet gems, the quality of his work tended to be closer to sub-"Basic Instinct" erotic thriller "Jade" (which Friedkin has said is one of his favorite of his films, curiously), or tree-rape horror "The Guardian," than to his breakout films.

But 2007's "Bug," with Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, based on the Tracy Letts play, was a serious return to form, and that has continued along with "Killer Joe," another collaboration with the playwright that boasts a starry cast and a dark, mean sense of humor. It's a terrific little film that features some of the most unforgettable scenes of the year. With "Killer Joe" finally in theaters, it seemed like a good time to go back and pick out the filmmaker's essential movies worth tracking down. Check them out below, and if you want to fight in the corner for a film we didn't mention, you can do so in the comments section below. And if you want more Friedkin himself, check out our extensive interview with filmmaker right here.

"The French Connection" (1971)
William Friedkin started off his career with a number of mostly forgotten pictures, but 1970's "The Boys In The Band" put him on the map, and after Howard Hawks, the father of his then-girlfriend, told him he should "make a good chase. Make one better than anyone's ever done," the helmer took on the film adaptation of Robin Moore's non-fiction novel "The French Connection." And the result was one of the best cop flicks ever made, and features a car chase that was pretty much the most thrilling even captured on camera up to that point, vaulting Friedkin to A-list in no time. Following narcotics detectives Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider) as they try to crack a French heroin-smuggling ring in New York, it might embellish the plot a little for the sake of the thrill-ride, but its documentary-style realism (inspired by Costa-Gavras' "Z"), full of handheld cameras and Friedkin's terrific attention to detail, reinvigorated the genre. While the plotting might suffer these days due to it being ripped off countless times in the last 40 years, it's the character work from Hackman and Scheider that really stands out, making for complex protagonists that never fall into stereotypes. Friedkin's breakout film is is many ways still his finest film to date.

"The Exorcist" (1973)
In a world of tentpoles and franchises, it's almost unthinkable that a firmly R-rated horror film (one in which a young girl masturbates with a crucifix and says the line "Your mother sucks cocks in hell," no less) could be not only be a giant hit, but rank among the ten biggest grossers in history. And an top of those achievements, "The Exorcist" remains a stone-cold horror classic as well. Starting off as Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) confronts the demon Pazazu in Iraq, we're soon halfway across the world, as famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) notices horrific changes in her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Before long, doctors start to take more seriously the idea that Regan might, as she claims, be the Devil herself, and Father Karras, whose faith is falling apart, along with Father Merrin, a renowned exorcist, are brought in to drive the demon away. Tapping into primal fears -- about our children, not to mention his satanic majesty himself -- Friedkin brings the same realism that turned the cop genre on its head to the horror film, particularly thanks to a fine cast (Burstyn, Von Sydow and Jason Miller), and the methods that Friedkin used to freak them out on set, including firing a gun mid-scene. And it's because of that realism that the film is so absolutely terrifying; visceral and painful and searing, even after years of imitation by lesser films. It's worth noting that you should stick with the original, rather than 2000's "Version You've Never Seen."

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  • Nikolai | August 5, 2012 7:26 AMReply

    What about Rampage, a very overlooked Friedkin oddity from 1987. It precursors Bug as a small paranoid tableau of a young serial killer. There are supposedly multiple versions since at one point it was supposedly so violent it had to be trimmed back to make an R rating.
    it's a strange mix of brutal suburban killings and courtroom drama with Michael Biehn (The Terminator) as a lawyer seeking the death penalty against a boy who killed his family. It is dark, dark, dark and leaves you pretty drained by the end.
    Not a classic, but it still has that trademark Friedkin nihilism.
    It seems that there is a "director's cut" on youtube:

  • Andrew | July 31, 2012 11:50 PMReply

    Great list! It seems like nowadays when mentioning "To Live and Die in L.A." to newcomers one should also mention what a specific impact it had on "Drive."

    I also thank you for bringing "Sorcerer" to my attention. I wasn't aware of it and it sounds terrific.

  • Dylan E | July 31, 2012 7:06 PMReply

    I consider Cruising to be a masterpiece, and quite handily Friedkin's best film - people always give me funny looks when I say this. Its so-called "politics" (whatever that means) never crossed my mind when I was watching it; I was just completely enamoured by the power and the specificness of its vision. It strikes and shocks and stirs and amazes, even after multiple late-night (when else?) viewings; its messiness only serves to substantiate its bottomless cinematic wonders.

  • No | July 31, 2012 4:10 PMReply

    I think Gene Hackman won an Oscar for best actor for The French Connection.

  • Alex | July 31, 2012 8:40 AMReply

    Really great picks here. It's incredibly difficult for me to choose a top Friedkin film, they're all different, but the same. Unique yet familiar. Simply cannot wait for Killer Joe.

    One thing, and I'm really not to be a nag, but it's "To Live and Die in L.A." not "To Live in Die in L.A."

  • CR | July 30, 2012 2:36 PMReply

    Glad to see CRUISING included - as daring as it is flawed, films from Fight Club to Seven to the Saw films owe their grimy warehouse aesthetic to the film. And Al Pacino shaking his fists on poppers is pretty brilliant to watch.

    Ashley Judd's final monologue in BUG is amazing - an overlooked film with a standout performance.

  • Travis | July 30, 2012 2:04 PMReply

    It is also worth noting that Friedkin has a) denied the Hawks story in a separate interview, and b) stated the Version You've Never Seen is at least on par with the original if not better

  • Stevo the Magnificent | July 31, 2012 12:22 AM

    Did Friedkin really say that atrocious extended cut of 'The Exorcist' was as good as the theatrical cut? It was a total desecration of an utter masterpiece, I bought the DVD, watched it once, then promptly took it back to the shop in disgust, I mean REALLY...

  • bb | July 30, 2012 1:42 PMReply

    Jon, if the authors thought that were true, they wouldn't have included Cruising. So you reminding them that it's not a good movie and saying it's abysmal is pointless.

    I second Ben is saying that Bug is an overlooked gem.

  • jon | July 30, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    Uh-uh. Cruising is NOT a good movie. In fact, it's pretty abysmal. I'd take fucking Blue Chips over that any day. Actually, that's not true.

  • Ben | July 30, 2012 1:19 PMReply

    Great list. It's too bad there wasn't room for BUG. That movie is so unfairly overlooked.

  • Drew Kerr | July 30, 2012 12:28 PMReply

    How can you write about "To Live and Die in L.A." without praising its amazing car chase scene?

  • Fred | July 31, 2012 12:04 PM

    Thanks for the reply, but I'll get off my horse when everyone who writes about film drops the "dated" card. ALL movies date, for better or worse, from the era in which they're made and though you give well-rounded and deserved praise, there are millions of others who will wholly deny any movie from decades (probably now centuries) they deem unworthy. Your literate example here could and probably will lead to/lend creedence to a sea of "eew, 80s hair and synth music" or "70s movies=meh" chatter.

  • Rodrigo | July 31, 2012 9:14 AM

    Called a "classic crime thriller" get off your horse, dude. Note, we toyed with adding "The Brink's Job" to this list, but while not bad, it's just a little light on its feet and maybe a little harmless, but inessential.

  • Fred | July 31, 2012 12:55 AM

    Because they're too busy proving how up to the second they are by cataloging the elements that make it "dated."

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