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The Essentials: The 5 Best William Friedkin Films

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 30, 2012 at 12:00PM

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.
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Sorcerer
"Sorcerer" (1977)
When you have a hit of the size of "The Exorcist," you pretty much get to do whatever you want. For Friedkin, he decided to remake one of the best-loved thrillers in cinema history, Henri-Georges Clouzot's "The Wages Of Fear," with a then-massive $22 million budget, and a lengthy, globe-trotting production schedule (trumpeted in the trailer as lasting two years, in five countries, on four continents). And unsurprisingly, it was attacked as a classic example of directorial hubris on release, and flopped, in part because of the release of "Star Wars" a month earlier. But the film has had its critical reputation revived over the years (although legal issues are currently preventing screenings) and deservedly so. The plot remains much the same as the original: four international nomads, led by Roy Scheider, hiding out in South America are tasked with the potentially lucrative (and possibly fatal) job of driving trucks containing highly unstable explosive nitroglycerin across the mountains, in order to quell a fire at an oil well. It's ten minutes shorter than Clouzot's film, but the narrative does feel a little more languid, Friedkin fleshing out the backstories of his protagonists, and it's less lean and honed than the original. But it also helps to make the film a slightly different, more textured beast, while Friedkin handles the white-knuckles suspense sequences with all of his directorial tools, not least the astonishing suspension bridge sequence. And although the two fell out on set, Scheider (who was far from Friedkin's first choice for the part, the director having wanted Steve McQueen) actually gives a performance that might be his finest. Hopefully, the legal tangle will be sorted soon, and we can get to see a shiny new version before too long. If nothing else, we'd like to hear Tangerine Dream's pulsing electronic score (one of the first of its kind) on big, theater sized speakers.  

Cruising
"Cruising" (1980)
Uncompromisingly nasty, full of lurid sleaze,  gruesome and cynical. These are some of the plaudits for William Friedkin’s latest, “Killer Joe,” but they also read like the pejoratives against Friedkin’s infamous ninth feature-length effort “Cruising.” To be fair, they are wildly different films. His latest is a deep-fried pitch-black comedy, while his 1980 effort is a largely humorless and sordid look at a sub-culture the filmmaker possibly knew nothing about (and yes, it sure as shit looks like that on the surface). Starring a hirsute Al Pacino, “Cruising” centers on an undercover cop (Pacino) who infiltrates the New York gay scene to find a serial killer that’s been targeting homosexual men. The problem is that the film’s deeply questionable social politics are queasy at best and the gay scene in New York is depicted like an depraved morass where S&M freaks and hedonistic sex fiends go to engage in all kinds of scuzzy and unspeakable sexual acts. Essentially any film that was looking to spoof the leather-bound, biker gays (see The Blue Oyster bar in “Police Academy” for one), would need not look any further than Friedkin’s misguided look at gay culture which most critics dubbed homophobic and hateful. It’s been reviled in many circles and called deeply misunderstood by others. And while it’s hard to apologize or advocate for the film, what the picture does possess is a dark, seedy and discomforting sense of dread; both from the Pacino cop character having to endure dank cum-stained dungeon-like bars and this killer that’s lurking out there somewhere in the shadows. Yes, “Cruising” is kind of ridiculous, but its fucked-up aesthetics and striking sense of anxiety and apprehension that reflects back on the viewers own unease. Had it just been a serial-killer film set in begrimed sections of New York in the '80s, maybe “Cruising” might not be as notorious as it still is today.

To Live And Die In L.A.
"To Live And Die In L.A." (1985)
While dated and arguably slightly hampered by its ‘80s-era DNA -- a corny/awesome score by Wang Chung, cartoony Day-Glo-ish titles, holistic slickness, etc. --  William Friedkin's "To Live And Die In L.A" is nevertheless a classic crime thriller from the Reagan years. It's hard to conceive of a time when "CSI" actor William Petersen was a sex-symbol-like lead, but that's exactly the role he inhabits here, full of cocky swagger. He plays Richard Chance, a United States Secret Service agent with the Treasury Department that becomes vengeful and unhinged when his partner of 10 years and best friend  (Michael Greene) dies investigating a counterfeiting scheme three days before he's set to retire. With a new partner forced onto him (John Pankow), and consumed by revenge, the already morally-questionable Petersen -- who employs an parolee/informant (Darlanne Fluegel) using a mix of sex and extortion to bend her to his will -- finds his code of ethics beginning to erode as he will stop at nothing to catch the expert counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe).  And while more than enough to be good dramatic fodder,  what transpires in the film’s surprising and twisty third act is much more of a personal tale of revenge and ultimately becomes an surprisingly inspired examination of the thin line between cops and crooks, moral decay and the consequences of ends justifying the means policing. Perhaps most significantly, "To Die And Live In L.A" holds an important spot in Friedkin's oeuvre. After his perceived string of ‘70s bombs -- films we've listed out here that turn out to be rather great in retrospect  -- 'L.A.' was seen as a major comeback film for the director. Unfortunately, it was also the last good film Friedkin made for the better part of two decades.

-- Rodrigo Perez, Oliver Lyttelton

This article is related to: William Friedkin, The Essentials, Killer Joe


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