By Yasmina Tawil
The way things currently stand, it’s probably safe to say that William Friedkin has retired. Not that there isn’t still a market for his brand of hilarious, opinionated coarseness—as two recent documentaries, Francesco Zeppel’s Friedkin Uncut, and Alexandre O. Philippe’s Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist can attest—but as a filmmaker, as a director of movies of all kind, movies that are often idiosyncratic, sometimes nakedly commercial, not infrequently provocative, even deeply shocking, he appears to have packed it in. Friedkin is 85 now, so who can blame him, especially when you consider how much longer the gaps between his films had become? He’s made just three in the last fifteen years.
One of those, the last one, is a documentary called The Devil and Father Amorth, which purports to document the genuine exorcism of a woman actually possessed by an evil spirit. I have my doubts about this, but regardless, if that film does indeed turn out to be Friedkin’s last, there’s a neat symmetry to it, as his first picture was also a documentary. The People vs. Paul Crump was made for television, and combines noirish reenactments and interviews with the key subjects to tell the case of Paul Crump, a black man on Death Row for the murder of a security guard during an attempt to rob the payroll office of a Chicago meatpacking plant. The crime occurred in 1953, and Friedkin’s film—which in addition to suggesting Crump was innocent, also asserts that even if he’s guilty, he was rehabilitated—aired in 1962.
The People vs. Paul Crump was very successful, and allowed Friedkin to pick up more TV work until, in the late 60s, he was finally able to begin his career in features. It’s one hell of a wild career, too, one that can be divided into sections that show both the occasionally scattershot nature of his subject matter and the years when his focus on theme and his own specific style was much sharper, which I’ve done. Let’s get started:
I. Do You Recognize an External Force?
There is no better evidence that Friedkin’s life as a filmmaker has been a unique one than the fact that his first feature was Good Times, a kind of sketch comedy film starring Sonny & Cher (and quite frankly starring Sonny more than Cher) that was ultimately kind of a dry-run for their eventual TV variety shows. It co-stars, naturally enough, George Sanders as a movie executive whose pitch to Sonny about getting him and his wife into the movie business leads to a series of fantasies in which Sonny plays the bumbling hero in different genre movies— a Western, jungle adventure, and so on.