Den Of Geek Book Club: William Friedkin – Films Of Aberration, Obsession And Reality

This month's film Book Club choice is a study of director William Friedkin that spends as much time on the failures as the successes...

Some films catch your attention for reasons other than being good. Cruising (1980) has stuck in my memory for years. It’s very weird. Al Pacino plays a cop who works undercover in New York’s gay club scene, tracking down a serial killer. Or possibly more than one serial killer; it’s difficult to tell in the darkness, the double bluffs, and the uncomfortable and unclear nature of the action. Few critics liked it, even less people went to see it, and William Friedkin wrote and directed it. When I think of Friedkin’s work I think of Cruising as much as I think of The Exorcist, or The French Connection. How could the same person have made these films?

Clagett’s book embraces the failures as much as the successes, and that’s what makes it a great read. This isn’t about Friedkin’s personal life, or his many arguments with others in the film industry (if you’re interested in that side of his story then Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls might well be the book for you). It’s an in-depth look at every film Friedkin has directed, including aspects such as structure and dialogue, followed by critical and public opinion, and Clagett’s own thoughts on why the film worked, or failed. As much time is given to Deal Of The Century (1983) and Rampage (1987) as The French Connection, and what is revealed is perhaps, more than anything, a pattern of bad choices. Often Friedkin and sometimes the film’s producers blame casting; for Sorceror, the fact that it was written for Steve McQueen and would have been a very different film with him in the lead role is mooted. Sometimes the choice of script comes under fire – you get the feeling that Clagett is firmly of the opinion that Friedkin’s talent certainly doesn’t stretch to comedy. But comedy, thriller, horror, drama: Friedkin has made films that don’t quite work in a number of genres, so that can’t quite be to blame. Perhaps it all boils down to something that Friedkin says himself: “The more experienced you get, the harder it gets.”

So it’s a great book for charting the path of a very interesting career (Friedkin compares himself with Orson Welles on occasion and I think there are parallels there, in the way that sheer personality carries a director forward, but comes with its own problems). But if you enjoy reading about film for the snippets of surprising information then Clagett also offers those. The idea that Steven Spielberg was first in line to direct Cruising astonishes me, as does the list of directors who were put forward for The Exorcist, ranging from Mike Nichols to Stanley Kubrick. Lalo Schifrin’s original score for The Exorcist sounds incredible; apparently parts of it were later used in The Amityville Horror after Friedkin literally threw Schifrin’s work out into the street.

In fact, the only problem with the book is, I think, not one that could be avoided. It feels at the end of the read that we are no closer to really uncovering any truth about Friedkin. He inspires enmity and adoration. He claims that Hitchcock made only a few really good films and left him unimpressed, but then cites Shadow Of A Doubt as a big influence on The Exorcist and thinks about hiring Bernard Herrmann to write the score. He strives for great realism, and says that accounts for the success of The French Connection and The Exorcist, but then enjoys the fact that mistakes in editing go unnoticed, claiming that when the viewer is totally immersed in the action such mistakes don’t matter.

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Well, none of us are without contradiction. And I get the feeling that Friedkin is as much of a mystery to himself as to any of us. Reflecting on his later films, he says, “It’s as though someone reached up inside an animal and pulled the guts out.” Something visceral is missing; what, and why, remains unknown.

That doesn’t change the fact that some of his films have undoubtedly left their mark on modern cinema, and inspired many who came after. And it also doesn’t change the fact that Clagett’s book is a brilliant read. Sometimes there aren’t any easy answers as to why things or people work, or don’t work, to their best advantage. But pondering the question is perhaps more fun than getting to the bottom of it all anyway.

Any thoughts about this book? We’d love to hear them. At the beginning of May, Kaci will be reviewing Mothership (The Ever-Expanding Universe) by Martin Leicht for the Book Club fiction choice.