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The Films of William Friedkin

Good Times (December 28/04)

Good Times is an ideal companion piece to Sonny Bono and Cher's subsequent collaboration, 1969's Chastity, though this is far from a compliment. The film is just as pointless and obnoxious as Chastity, as it's clear that the movie has been designed to appeal exclusively to fans of the singing duo. There's not much of a plot here; Sonny and Cher receive an offer to make a movie, and Sonny imagines himself in a variety of different genres (eg Westerns, detective movies, etc). Poor George Sanders (he was in All About Eve, for crying out loud!) appears as the film's villain, while William Friedkin makes his directorial debut (if nothing else, Good Times remains one of the few films in his oeuvre to lack a gritty car chase). The movie's incredibly thin storyline seems to exist for the sole purpose of allowing Sonny and Cher to sing a lot of silly pop songs and appear in eye-rollingly silly sketches. And though the two performers do possess a good amount of charisma, it's just not enough to disguise the fact that this is nothing more than a bloated vanity piece.

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The Birthday Party

The Night They Raided Minsky's

The Boys in the Band

The French Connection (July 7/12)

Directed by William Friedkin, The French Connection follows grizzled cop Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) as he and his partner, Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider), attempt to take down a gang of drug smugglers hailing from New York City and Paris. It's a strong plot that admittedly does take a while to assert itself, as Friedkin, working from a script by Ernest Tidyman, initially emphasizes the episodic exploits of the protagonists - as Popeye and Cloudy go about their day-to-day business and, eventually, stumble upon what they believe to be a drug-smuggling ring. There's little doubt that the viewer's interest, at the outset, is held primarily by the inherently compelling nature of the central characters' matter-of-fact endeavors, with the compulsively watchable vibe heightened by Hackman and Scheider's powerful work and by the inclusion of several electrifying action sequences (eg Popeye, clad in a Santa Claus suit, engages in a brief yet exciting foot chase with a suspect). Friedkin's appropriately gritty directorial choices prove effective at perpetuating the movie's authentic, down-to-earth atmosphere, and although the procedural-like bent of Tidyman's screenplay occasionally threatens to become oppressive, there ultimately reaches a point at which it becomes impossible not to actively root for Popeye's increasingly dogged, almost obsessive attempts at stopping the aforementioned smugglers. Of course, The French Connection's shift from very good to excellent is triggered by its now-infamous car-chase sequence - with the strength of this interlude cementing the movie's place as a classic bit of '70s filmmaking. (It's just as clear, however, that everything that follows can't help but feel a little anticlimactic, although, on the other hand, there's certainly no denying the impact of the unexpectedly downbeat finale.)

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The Exorcist (October 31/16)

Based on a book by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist follows Ellen Burstyn's Chris MacNeil as she enlists the help of a priest (Jason Miller's Father Karras) to save her daughter (Linda Blair's Regan) from the clutches of an evil entity. It's interesting to note that The Exorcist gets off to a palpably disastrous start, as filmmaker William Friedkin kicks things off with a rather interminable stretch detailing the exploits of an older priest's (Max von Sydow's Father Merrin) less-than-engrossing exploits in Iraq - with the ineffectiveness of this prologue preventing the viewer from wholeheartedly embracing the remainder of the proceedings. There's little doubt, though, that the movie does improve somewhat once it progresses into its narrative proper, as Friedkin, working from Blatty's script, does a nice job of establishing the movie's central characters and the progressively dire situation in which they find themselves - with the inclusion of ominous little hints certainly heightening the movie's increasingly atmospheric feel (eg Chris hears weird noises coming from the attic, Regan communicates with the entity through her ouija board, etc). Friedkin's decision to employ as deliberate a pace as one could envision eventually does become irredeemably problematic, however, and it's difficult to work up much interest in or enthusiasm for, say, the series of medical tests to which Regan is subjected (ie there's a palpable get-on-with-it sort of vibe at work here). And although the tension is ratcheted up significantly once the title character arrives on the scene, The Exorcist runs out of steam long before reaching its decidedly low-key (and somewhat anticlimactic) finale - which is a shame, certainly, given the presence of a few distinctly stirring moments during the movie's third act (ie the now-infamous "the power of Christ compels you" bit packs a potent punch, to be sure).

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Sorcerer (May 1/14)

At more than two hours, Sorcerer is, for the most part, a palpably overlong drama that's rife with superfluous scenes and subplots - with the movie's saving grace a handful of absolutely enthralling action-oriented sequences. The narrative follows four outcasts as they agree to transport crates of unstable dynamite through the jungles of South America, with the characters' continuing efforts complicated and stymied by a variety of obstacles and problems. Sorcerer takes a fantastic premise and dilutes it with a bloated running time that's focused on elements of a decidedly uninteresting, uninvolving nature, as filmmaker William Friedkin, working from a script by Walon Green, offers up an opening hour that's devoted almost entirely to the backstories of the four central characters. This is certainly a good idea in theory, and yet Friedkin, for the most part, finds himself unable to wholeheartedly transform any of these people into the fascinating figures he clearly wants them to be. This proves especially true for French businessman Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), as Cremer's bland performance ensures that every moment his character is onscreen is a test to the viewer's ongoing patience. And although the film flounders once the four men arrive at their destination - ie Friedkin devotes far too much time to the guys' initial exploits in the low-rent city - Sorcerer improves immeasurably once the protagonists embark on their respective journeys through an increasingly perilous landscape. The film's highlight, for example, is undoubtedly a now-legendary sequence in which Roy Scheider's Jackie Scanlon attempts to cross a rickety rope bridge, with the palpable tension of this scene heightened by Friedkin's expert direction and Scheider's absolutely enthralling performance. Likewise, the latter half of the movie boasts a handful of other impressively suspenseful moments, including an encounter with cavalier, dangerous guerillas, and the movie builds to a satisfyingly dark finale. It's just too bad, then, that Sorcerer isn't able to maintain that level of tension for the duration of its 121 minute running time, and it's ultimately clear that the film could've benefited from a few more passes through the editing bay.

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The Brink's Job


Deal of the Century

To Live and Die in L.A. (December 16/03)

Though it's essentially entertaining throughout, To Live and Die in L.A.'s underlying element of sleaze and pervasive reliance on 1980s flourishes keeps it from becoming the biting and gritty thriller that director William Friedkin clearly wants it to be. The film, which follows grizzled FBI agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) as he embarks on a campaign of revenge after his partner is brutally murdered, is undeniably very well made - from the performances to its more technical aspects - but the bottom line is that it's just not all that compelling. Though it's easy enough to identify with Chance's mission, illegal as it may be, the screenplay, written by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, never allows us to identify with the man. Friedkin would undoubtedly argue that that's precisely the point; Chance isn't the sort of person most of us would ever want to emulate. But given that he's meant to be the protagonist of this story, we need to be able to root for him on some level; hoping that he doesn't get busted or killed simply isn't enough. The underlying realism of the film is often negated by laughable '80s touches (Chance actually calls someone "righteous," in addition to using the term "man" far too often), although some might say this is actually a positive thing. Perhaps the film captures what life was like for an agent in 1985, and that's just the way such a person would speak. But even if that's the case, there's just something overly theatrical about some of the speeches and off-the-cuff moments of dialogue. As an action movie, though, To Live and Die in L.A. undeniably excels. The highlight of the film is, without a doubt, a car chase that occurs towards the end. It probably helps that Friedkin likely felt a lot of pressure to top the legendary chase from The French Connection, because this one is far more adventurous and exciting (at one point, the pursuit winds up on the wrong side of the freeway). The film is also incredibly violent, especially when compared to the toned-down, PG-13 antics of today's action flicks. There's certainly a heightened sense of authenticity that comes into play when the violence is this gritty and unexpected; any number of these characters could be shot in the face at any time. The film marked CSI star Petersen's big-screen debut, and his electrifying performance goes a long way towards keeping things interesting. With better-than-expected supporting turns from folks like Willem Dafoe and John Pankow, To Live and Die in L.A. is certainly one of the more entertaining failures of Friedkin's career - and hey, considering he also made the unwatchable Jade, that's a good thing.

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C.A.T. Squad


C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf

The Guardian

Blue Chips



12 Angry Men

Rules of Engagement

The Hunted

Bug (November 20/07)

Before it completely goes off the rails in its final 20 minutes, Bug generally comes off as a slow-moving yet exceedingly well-acted drama concerning two damaged characters (Ashley Judd's Agnes and Michael Shannon's Peter) and their efforts to embark upon a tentative relationship. Judd's mere presence ensures that the film initially boasts the feel of a typically introspective kitchen-sink indie, while Tracy Letts' script - based on his own play - effectively delves into the increasingly fragile psyches of the two central characters. William Friedkin's inventive directorial choices surely play a substantial role in Bug's early success, as the film never entirely possesses the stagy feel that one might've expected (which is no small feat, surely, given that the majority of the story transpires within a single hotel room). But there reaches a point at which Letts essentially throws logic and plausibility right out the window, as the scripter slowly-but-surely places an egregious emphasis on Peter's deteriorating mental state (and, later, Agnes'). It's consequently impossible to maintain even an ounce of interest in the characters' plight - particularly as the pair take to screaming at imaginary insects and helicopters within their aluminum-foil draped hotel room - and the end result is a movie that's almost entirely sabotaged by its head-scratcher of a third act.

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Killer Joe (July 16/12)

An impressively bold effort, Killer Joe details the turmoil that ensues after Emile Hirsch's Chris Smith, in a desperate attempt at making some quick cash, hires a slick hitman (Matthew McConaughey's Joe) to knock off his well-insured mother - with the film, for the most part, detailing the impact that this decision has on the various members of Chris' family (including his innocent yet curious sister, Juno Temple's Dottie, and his dimwitted father, Thomas Haden Church's Ansel). Filmmaker William Friedkin has infused Killer Joe with a gritty and pervasively sordid feel that effectively complements Tracy Letts' lurid screenplay, although, having said that, the film's atmosphere of white-trash sleaze is, at the outset, somewhat difficult to wholeheartedly embrace. (It doesn't help, either, that the movie boasts the feel of a stage adaptation, as the majority of the proceedings transpire within the cramped confines of a rundown trailer.) Killer Joe's transformation from watchable to enthralling, then, is triggered by the arrival of McConaughey's mysterious Joe, with the meandering narrative immediately alleviated by the actor's gripping and flat-out electrifying performance. And although McConaughey's stirring work ensures that one's interest dwindles whenever his character is offscreen, Killer Joe, which is peppered with a number of palpably striking sequences, builds to an absolutely enthralling (and purposefully over-the-top) climax that's almost jaw-dropping in its audacity - which, in essence, confirms the film's place as an uneven yet often engrossing piece of work.

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© David Nusair