The Man who Redefined Horror and Cinema
Hollywood during the early seventies was going through a tumultuous era primarily due to movie studios facing major competition from the world's greatest invention since the wheel-television. During this time when ticket sales were slumping, Blaxploitation films came in and saved mainstream studios who in the case of MGM were tethering on bankruptcy until Shaft. The motion picture industry was in a slump despite having a modicum of success from modest budgeted films like, Owl and the Pussycat, Carnal Knowledge. Badlands, Mean Streets, A Clockwork Orange, Billy Jack, and The French Connection.
The latter which was an edge of the seat crime drama thanks to its groundbreaking camera work, editing, and iconic car chase scene courtesy of Director William Friedkin.
The French Connection’s success is attributed primarily to its accurate and gritty portrayal of crime and police work with an Oscar worthy performance by Gene Hackman as New York narcotics detective, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle determined to stop the heroin smuggling trade. Friedman’s choice to use authentic, gritty and low-budget locations instead of soundstages provided them the opportunity to capture a raw and authentic atmosphere for the events in the movie resulting in a very immersive documentary style. This added a level of realism and credibility to the story that was not always present in movies before The French Connection came out. Nowadays, it's typical for filmmakers to use the natural environment as a way of filmmaking giving the scenes a very realistic touch.
The most famous part of the film, the chase sequence, is one of the greatest car chase scenes in cinema. which was shot by Friedkin himself, and partly filmed from the car and reconstructed in post-production using multiple angles and sound. Friedkin’s creative technique of reversing perspective dramatically not only altered the way filmmakers understood and used camera angles, shot distribution, sound and editing, but earned him an Academy Award for Best Director and catapulted him to the top of Hollywood royalty.
Friedkin’s biggest success was the Exorcist based on a novel written by William Peter Blatty, the story revolves around a young girl named Regan who becomes possessed by the demon Pazuzu. During its debut, the movie received mixed reviews initially, but it soon became a cultural phenomenon and a classic in the horror genre. Prior to The Exorcist, horror movies were mostly low budget and B-grade, often relying on cheap scares and gimmicks. The Exorcist, on the other hand, had a higher budget and utilized groundbreaking special effects with an iconic theme Tubular Bells.
It also focused on psychological horror rather than explicit gore or violence, something that was new to the genre. Friedkin’s masterpiece was shot without any boundaries, Regan urinating on the carpet in front of dinner guests, stabbing at her genitals with a crucifix, desecrating a statue of the Virgin Mary, the spider-walk and, of course, the infamous head-spinning scene. There is also the possessed Regan's use of obscene and graphic language. The Exorcist redefined the horror genre courtesy of its innovative use of suspense, atmosphere, and psychological terror which of course, ushered in more unconventional and daring films that were edgier, riskier, and wasn't shy from tackling controversial subject matter.
Friedkin’s approach to filmmaking was very organic. He hired real police officers,counterfeiters, and a priest (Jason Miller) for The French Connection,To Live and Die in LA, and the Exorcist respectively and plenty of his films did not give his actors time to rehearse their lines, as he put it, “I’m a one-take guy!” Always outspoken and brutally sincere, Friedkin, who passed on Aug 7th has an undisputable legacy of rescuing cinema during Hollywood’s slump, much prior to the summer blockbuster type films such as Jaws or Star Wars. All this from a man who started out making a modest documentary, The People vs. Paul Crump. Godspeed, Sorcerer.