Where to begin with William Friedkin? Our title would suggest at the end. But really this video essay stems from the beginning—rather, from the early biography of this most idiosyncratic of mainstream directors. In fast and short Chicago-L.A. documentaries about stuntmen, lion-tamers, and death-row inmates, Friedkin cultivated a taste for action and physicality. His first film, The People vs. Paul Crump (1962), recreates from the ground up the bank job that the titular inmate took the fall for, a precursor to the present-tense quality of Friedkin’s later, more famous movies; while The Bold Men (1965) is a forgotten television special about tough-guy characters sticking out their necks for their own glory. (The latter was sourced from real life by Friedkin after a producer handed him just the proposed title and offered him a tiny budget to shoot it on.) By the time he was celebrated—or derided—for terse action movies like The French Connection (1971) and Sorcerer (1977), Friedkin’s characters were—or would seem to be—presences before personalities. In his movies, the psychological and the physical collapse into a single definition. As the old cliché goes, Friedkin’s are men of action.
But the weird circumstances of Friedkin’s entry into the Hollywood mainstream (and his later ejection from it) are such that it is impossible to locate his unique appeal entirely in these classic movies and in this straight-laced, underground mindset. Friedkin evidently saw himself as something other than an unpretentious genre craftsman, drunk as he was on the fashionable high art cinema of the time.
The young director was drawn to the theatre and early in his career directed two earthy stage adaptations, The Birthday Party (1969) by Harold Pinter and The Boys in the Band (1970) by Mart Crowley. As well as anticipating Friedkin’s late-career return to the realm of the theatrical, these projects have all the hallmarks of what would become the Friedkin touch: the documentary-like images, the incessant lateral motion of actors navigating on-screen space, the ever-escalating frictions between uncontrollable personalities, the deft but abrupt shifts in levels of fiction. But more importantly, they point the way to the bizarre synthesis he would achieve when he later became a major studio director.
It was this dual pull from opposing ends of the taste spectrum that spawned what we now know as the cinema of William Friedkin. His tastes in drama are both explosive and understated; his protagonists are both professionals silently executing their missions and psychopaths coming unstuck in the face of mounting absurdity. As a viewer we become aware, at first unconsciously and gradually more consciously, of a second story that we cannot see. This other level of fiction is buried under the more obvious fiction: the "men of action" movie. Over the course of Friedkin's films, our perspective fluctuates wildly—often sometime well after the halfway point— and we end up confronted by the same protagonist, a figure once close to archetype, viewed in an entirely different light.
Friedkin’s endings, then, are the result of this fissure. Unable to reconcile these dual impulses, he lets the divisions erupt. As their worlds collapse around them, the characters are cast adrift in monstrous hellscapes of their own making. Friedkin suggests that it is the very professionalism to which these men adhere that causes their degeneration into apparitions; ghosts that haunt the same landscapes that destroyed them. Often, our last glimpses of these cut-off and defeated protagonists are direct confrontations with the camera; their cold, dead stares—a device borrowed from a legacy of modernist art movies—confirm the disintegration we have been privy to, and are a last glimpse before they are swallowed by the void. A stare into the eyes of total dissolution: nobody ends a film like William Friedkin.