09 August 2023

Billy Friedkin

The director William Friedkin died this week.  Over a fifty-year career, his movies included, most famously, The Exorcist, as well as The French Connection, The Boys in the Band, To Live and Die in L.A., the notorious Cruising, and the hugely underrated Sorcerer, a moody, Gothic remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s bristling existential thriller, The Wages of Fear.

It’s easy to misremember what a jolt The French Connection was, when it came out.  For context, Bullitt had been released in 1968, Midnight Cowboy in 1969, M*A*S*H in 1970.  There was still plenty of room for the traditional -Westerns, musicals, rom-coms – but the new American cinema, so-called, was opening up, and the European influence was strong.  Friedkin specifically mentions Z, the Costa-Gavras political thriller, as a direct influence on The French Connection.  He and his DP, Owen Roizman (who shot The Exorcist, as well), were looking for a documentary feel, a sense of the randomly found.  Particularly in the first act, when Popeye and Buddy are following the hoods around, not knowing what it might lead to, but knowing it could lead to something, they’re shot from a distance, but with a tight zoom, as if they’re themselves under surveillance.  They’re being eavesdropped on; it’s a violation of privacy; the camera is stealing glimpses.

Everybody knows the celebrated car chase, when Popeye commandeers a civilian’s TransAm to run after the train on the elevated tracks, but less celebrated is the way the picture internalizes Popeye’s obsessive, manic fury.  The script is by Ernest Tidyman, best known for Shaft, and it’s elliptical, circling the objective.  The structure is formal, but it’s deceptive, because the story isn’t linear.  It seems intuitive, or somehow organic, just lifting off the pavement like the steam coming through the subway grates.  It’s about street sense.  Popeye and Buddy are like, Oh, we know those creeps, what are they doing out so late?  And what are doing with those other guys, since when do they hang together?

The whole story, in other words, hangs on a hunch, and it proceeds by small, dogged increments, routine footwork, ear to the ground.  And like that other marvelous observer of New York’s particular urban energy, Sidney Lumet, Friedkin taps the nervous, animal muscularity of the city to manifest a sense of dread, a presence, just outside the edge of the frame.  Roizman later said what he and Friedkin were after was to make you uneasy.

They were helped enormously by Gene Hackman.  He gives the character terrific physicality, and his single-mindedness is close to pathological.  You begin to wonder whether Popeye is just plain nuts.  Even though you know he’s right about the Frenchman, he does in fact go over the edge.

William Goldman once said his obituary would lead with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and of course he was right, even though he’d written plenty of other stuff – and me personally, I’ve never liked Butch Cassidy that much.  Billy Friedkin’s notices led with The Exorcist, natch.  I guess that’s fair, but The French Connection put him on the map.  You could do worse. 


  1. I loved The French Connection. Hated The Exorcist, but I don't do horror.

  2. Unlike most of those around me, I wasn't a Butch Cassidy fan, and The Exorcist… meh. But Z… Z was fantastic. I can still hear the driving chords as corrupt polititians are herded off the prison.


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