William Friedkin: A Director of Flashes and Failures

Upon reflecting on the directorial oeuvre of William Friedkin, I am pleasantly astounded by the enduring compactness and exhilaration of “The French Traffic” (1971), which I once viewed on a DVD player numerous years ago. In this cinematic masterpiece, French narcotic overlords conspire alongside financially strained thespians to peddle substantial quantities of drugs to the United States. Two New York law enforcement officers, guided by their capricious intuition, discern telltale signs while tailing a dubious figure, resolutely committed to dismantling this transnational drug smuggling network amidst public outcry.

This film has yielded a multitude of iconic sequences. Among them, there exists a particular instance wherein a motor vehicle engages in a riveting pursuit beneath a bridge in New York City, captured in a gritty and authentically realistic manner. Additionally, the chase scene betwixt the police and a drug kingpin is an arresting display that compels one to offer applause. The audience remains blissfully unaware of the precise moment when the drug lord becomes cognizant of the pursuers trailing him, as they are enveloped within the perspective of the police. Initially imbued with a sense of tremendous promise, the police find themselves ensnared in the drug lord’s manipulative game, subjected to humiliation prior to his ultimate elusion.

“The French Drug Trafficking Network” exhibits an unparalleled brevity and lucidity, with nary a superfluous word throughout the entire film. For this cinematic triumph, Friedkin triumphantly claimed the accolades of Best Director and Best Picture at the 44th Academy Awards, a feat accomplished when he was a mere 36 years of age.

Two years subsequent, Friedkin unveiled “The Exorcist,” an exemplar of the horror genre. The film’s supremacy within this realm remains undisputed. Set within an affluent middle-class household, it revolves around a renowned divorced actor and his well-mannered, endearing progeny, Reigen. Regan experiences inexplicable trembling within her slumbering quarters, a phenomenon attributed to her adolescent metamorphosis. However, disbelief prevails when it is revealed that Regan has fallen under the sway of a demonic presence. She emits utterances foreign to her own being, possesses prodigious strength, and expels a repugnant green fluid. Her actions inflict harm upon others, even verging on lethal. Driven to despair, the actor enlists the aid of a priest to perform an arduous exorcism, thereby presenting a meticulous depiction of this process, wherein both priests imperil their own lives in pursuit of redemption for the innocent little girl.

“The Exorcist” garnered 10 Oscar nominations, securing victories in the realms of Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Effects, while amassing a global box office haul exceeding $441 million. Yet, it is now evident that Friedkin’s most remarkable achievement was his ability to capture the horror of a young girl’s demonic possession without an overreliance on special effects.

“The Exorcist” emerged prior to Friedkin’s attainment of his forties. In a world where fortune smiled upon him, he may have ascended to the ranks of a cinematic maestro, or at the very least, a master of a specific genre.

However, fate dictated otherwise. Friedkin eschewed the path of an auteur, lacking the luxury of contemplation regarding film ontology. Following the immense triumph of “The Exorcist” (1977), his subsequent endeavor, a reimagining of “Wages of Fear,” failed to replicate its predecessor’s commercial acclaim. Similarly, “The Exorcist” (1980), featuring Al Pacino, failed to resonate with audiences. By the 1980s, Friedkin’s status as a virtuoso had waned.

With retrospection, given the extraordinary nature of his inception, it is inevitable to lament the subsequent decades of Friedkin’s career. Regrettably, it appears that only the police drama “The Rough Riders” (1985) may be deemed a commendable work within his oeuvre. His directorial style often veers into the realm of vagueness, occasionally punctuated by moments of inspiration, yet more frequently marred by failure. Perhaps he harbored an aversion to repetition, thereby impeding the creation of another miraculous achievement. Certain critics have postulated that Friedkin thrived within the confines of limitations, rather than being granted unbounded creative freedom. In a 2013 interview with The New York Times, Friedkin himself entertained the notion that he may have excelled as a director if he had worked as a Hollywood producer during the 1950s and preceding eras.

On August 7, 2023, Friedkin departed from this world in Los Angeles at the venerable age of 88.

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