An iconoclast even among his New Hollywood peers coming up in the 1970s, the director William Friedkin built a reputation for grimy, high-impact thrillers and social dramas that sought to get a rise out of audiences and frequently drew the controversy they courted.
Friedkin, who died Monday at 87, found early success in Hollywood with the one-two punch of “The French Connection” in 1971 and “The Exorcist” in 1973, but his fortunes shifted in the years that followed, which led to a career of unpredictable and often attention-grabbing swerves. One of his best ’80s films, the sleek thriller “To Live and Die in L.A.,” is currently unavailable to stream, but adventurous home viewers will find plenty of scorching work to command their attention.
Here are nine films that illustrate Friedkin’s combination of stylistic bravado and willingness to engage on the battlegrounds of race, religion, sexuality and systemic corruption.
Though Friedkin’s relationship with the queer community would turn fraught a decade later with “Cruising,” this adaptation of Mart Crowley’s 1968 Off Broadway play was, at the time, the rare American film to focus entirely (and sympathetically) on the lives of gay men. Friedkin was so impressed by the stage production that all the original cast members were brought into the movie, which takes place mostly in the Upper East Side apartment where a fitfully employed writer (Kenneth Nelson) is holding a birthday party and has invited a motley group of friends. The boozy affair that follows zings with filthy one-liners, but tensions rise as the night carries on and the inner lives of these alienated, often closeted men start to surface.
‘The French Connection’
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Friedkin won his only Oscar, for best director, for this ferociously entertaining policier, which remains one of the great New York movies, a seedy snapshot of the city as it once existed — at least through the jaundiced perspective of a detective who has his share of blind spots. With a style that’s simultaneously propulsive and documentarylike in its evocation of place, Friedkin details a heroin smuggling operation that’s making its way to New York from Marseilles via ocean liner. Standing in the way is Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman), a bigot and an alcoholic who’s willing to go to astonishing lengths to solve the case, including a car chase under an elevated train that Friedkin turned into a classic of its kind.
Any conversation about the scariest movies ever made usually starts with a mention of Friedkin’s demon possession thriller, but the film’s effectiveness involves more than Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” and the terrifying contortions of a young girl’s body and spirit. “The Exorcist” gains an equal amount of power from the unyielding love a mother (Ellen Burstyn) has for her 12-year-old daughter (Linda Blair) as a demon wrests the girl away from her. Once the Roman Catholic Church gets involved, “The Exorcist” builds to harrowing and often frantic sessions between a priest (a superb Max von Sydow) and the ancient evil he’s desperate to whisk away.
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After huge back-to-back hits with “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” Friedkin adapted the same French novel that Henri-Georges Clouzot had turned into “The Wages of Fear,” a suspense classic about desperate workers driving truckloads of nitroglycerin through a mountain pass. After a troubled and expensive production, “Sorcerer” was a box office failure — coming out the same summer as “Star Wars” didn’t help — but it’s now regarded as one of Friedkin’s best, playing to his strengths in location shooting and intense physical action. Roy Scheider leads an international cast as one of four outlaws who accept $10,000 and legal citizenship for the job of driving nitroglycerin on hazardous South American roads to an oil well 200 miles away.
Friedkin had a habit of courting controversy, but nothing on the level of “Cruising,” a crime thriller that gay rights activists protested vociferously during and after production for a portrait of West Village nightlife they felt stigmatized their community. With that caveat in mind, it’s still one for the time capsule, a sleazy yet compelling story about a serial killer who targets gay men in New York’s leather scene and a detective (Al Pacino) who goes deep undercover to solve the case. It’s an understatement to say that Friedkin does not approach the material with the sensitivity his doubters might have wished for, but the locations have an almost tactile griminess to them, and Pacino’s performance roils with inner torment.
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Working from a script by Ron Shelton, who’d made the superb sports comedies “Bull Durham” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” Friedkin tackled the seedy underbelly of college athletics with typical verve, including dramatized basketball action that’s on par with the real thing. Channeling the chair-whipping tempestuousness of Bobby Knight — who appears as an opposing coach in a cameo — Nick Nolte stars as a legendary college coach who’s starting to miss out on “blue chip” recruits. After his first losing season, he risks his reputation and his conscience by deploying school boosters to offer benefits to top prospects, including a rim-rattling center played by future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.
In what would turn out to be his last major studio production, Friedkin executed this drum-tight, underrated action thriller in the “Rambo” mode about a disillusioned warrior on a killing spree and the former mentor tasked with bringing him to justice. Benicio Del Toro stars as a highly trained Delta Force soldier so traumatized by the genocide of civilians in Kosovo that he takes to the American wilderness and starts gunning down hunters. Echoing his performance in “The Fugitive,” Tommy Lee Jones is the F.B.I. “deep-woods tracker” who tries to retrieve him, with the advantage (and disadvantage) of having taught him everything he knows.
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In the first of two straight collaborations with the playwright Tracy Letts, Friedkin doesn’t hide the stage roots of a drama that takes place mostly within a rundown Oklahoma motel room, but the feverishness of the camera and sound work, along with the two lead performances, have a strong cinematic intensity. “Bug” is also a vital early showcase for Michael Shannon, who projects enough charisma as a drifter to win over a waitress (Ashley Judd) with relationship problems, but soon reveals a frightening volatility. The supposed discovery of an aphid in the motel bed sends these two lonely people into a paranoid frenzy that Friedkin transforms into an alternate reality.
Deploying his relaxed, mellifluous Southern drawl to sinister purposes, Matthew McConaughey channels Robert Mitchum in Letts’s bracing redneck noir about a trailer-park murder scheme in West Texas that goes sideways. In a plot that owes a little something to “Double Indemnity,” Emile Hirsch plays a wayward 22-year-old who enlists his father (Thomas Haden Church) in a plan to kill his mother and split her $50,000 life insurance policy, but when they hire a cop/contract killer (McConaughey) to do the job, he requires Hirsch’s virginal sister (Juno Temple) to serve as human collateral on future payment. A sequence involving a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken may be the least appetizing product placement in history.