Watched Journal: August 2023 - Remembering William Friedkin


Al Pacino's suspicious gaze was staring back at me.

I was standing in the aisle at Blockbuster in 1996, entranced by the VHS cover art for 'Cruising'. I read the synopsis: Pacino plays a New York cop who goes undercover to entrap a killer preying on homosexuals. I pass my father the tape, hoping we rent it. He says it's a good movie but too adult for me.

I wouldn't find the courage to see 'Cruising' until I was in college, downloading a blurry copy that I watched in my bedroom, in secret, I wasn't totally out yet. But 'Cruising' isn't really a gay film, as its director William Friedkin has stated, simply a mystery set in a subculture of gay life, the leather and S&M scene. And now, some 43 years since its release, it has become a riveting time capsule of the pre-AIDS era and ranks among Friedkin's best films. 

Friedkin, the maverick Academy Award winning director of 'The French Connection' and 'The Exorcist', passed away on August 7. At age 87, he had recently wrapped production on his first feature film in 12 years, 'The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial', which premiered at the Venice Film Festival this month. Over 7 decades, Friedkin directed 20 films, starting in 1967 with 'Good Times', a comedy starring Sonny & Cher. Four years and four films later, he would earn an Oscar for 'The French Connection', and then follow it up with 'The Exorcist' in 1973. Lines stretched around the block and people bought scalped tickets to see Linda Blair’s head spin. The man caught lightning in a bottle twice.

In that his films depicted us as something more than just cutouts, I would consider Friedkin an advocate of the gay community. He started out with documentaries and retained that curiosity throughout his career. Striving for authenticity, immersing himself in worlds. Before 'The French Connection' would catapult him to stardom, he directed the gay chamber piece, 'The Boys in The Band', based on the groundbreaking Off Broadway play about one night in the lives of a group of gay men who gather for a birthday party. 

As a snapshot of gay life at the time, it was a milestone in queer cinema, and perhaps the first film to center around a gay cast of characters. I was introduced to 'The Boys in The Band' years ago by some older gay friends of mine, who pointedly remarked its historical and personal significance. We sat and watched it together, these two married men and I, a reminder of how far things had come. 

Friedkin has always been there, a fixture of my moviegoer life. But the earliest fascination began when I discovered 'The French Connection' in middle school. As I began to vacuum the films of the New Hollywood era, from 'The Godfather I & II' to 'Dog Day Afternoon' and 'The Three Days of the Condor', 'The French Connection' stood out from the pack. The story of two New York city narcotics officers stumbling upon an international drug smuggling operation is masterfully directed by Friedkin, in what is one of the first modern police procedurals. 

Working directly with the detectives that solved the real case, Freidkin's documentary style was perfect to capture the gritty criminal underworld. While the gripping car chase is the film's most iconic scene, I’m always drawn to the stakeouts and Popeye Doyle's cat and mouse with Marseille drug lord Charnier (Fernando Rey). It leads to the perfect final scene, a fade to black with a gunshot, that haunts me still. 

There are few directors who have multiple masterpieces and Friedkin has at least two unimpeachables in 'The French Connection' and 'The Exorcist'. But to me, he has three more: 'Sorcerer', 'Cruising' and 'To Live and Die in L.A.'. With all the Hollywood clout to make any picture he wanted, Friedkin followed up 'The Exorcist' with 'Sorcerer', a cutthroat crime drama about a group of ex-pats in South America with dark pasts contracted to drive two explosive filled trucks through treacherous terrain. 

Aside from Friedkin reuniting with Roy Schieder, there are no household names among the international cast. The anxiety of unfamiliarity, being stranded in the jungle, adrift in a foreign world, desperate for a way out, is magnificently channeled in the film. The high light, the rain drenched sequence of the trucks driving over a decaying bridge, is one of the most astonishing frames in cinema. In another innovation from Friedkin, the film is set to the chilly electronica of Tangerine Dream, their first score. The resulting total package of Sorcerer pulls the senses through the gauntlet. 

Released in 1985, the year I was born, smack in the middle of the '80s, 'To Live & Die in L.A.' was heralded as a return to form for Friedkin, a companion piece to 'The French Connection', swapping cocaine trafficking for a counterfeiting ring. Yet 'TLDLA' is much more stylish than 'The French Connection', from the wicked sequences of Willem Dafoe's character burning his painting to the fascinating money printing montage. It's Friedkin's flashiest film, with the Wang Chung score dripping the frames in a dynamic, MTV panache. The title sequence, a gritty collage of L.A. life, is one of my all-time favorites.  

A year before he would face-off with Hannibal Lecter in 'Manhunter', William Petersen is terrific in the role of Secret Service agent Richard Chance, determined to entrap counterfeiting kingpin Rick Masters (Dafoe) after he murders his partner. With Chance in pursuit of Masters, the film throttles to its devastating climax, with a rip-roaring car chase along the way. It's a familiar plot of the crime genre, but Friedkin's new wave flourishes and wicked twists make it a classic.


But for me, it always comes back to 'Cruising'. Friedkin, cinema's cultural anthropologist, put a spotlight on the dark, seedy and macabre. Friedkin was originally pitched the idea of adapting Gerald Walker's novel Cruising by Phillip D'Antoni, who had produced 'The French Connection', but passed. It wasn't until he read in The Village Voice about The Bag Murders, a series of killings of gay men in the mid-'70's, where the bodies were dumped in the Hudson River.

What further intrigued Friedkin was that one of the men suspected (and later convicted in another murder) was Paul Bateson, who played the radiology technician in 'The Exorcist'. With the help of friend Randy Jurgensen, Friedkin was able to realize the murder mystery set in the gay S&M world, gaining filming access to the members-only sex clubs that were owned by the mafia. 

What Friedkin captures in those leather bars, a world before AIDS, plays decades later like a historical document. Adding to the authenticity, most of the extras were cast from the regulars who frequented the club. As officer Steven Burns (Al Pacino) goes undercover to bait the killer, he learns about the hanky code, takes poppers and dances like a maniac. Meanwhile, the camera acts as a voyeur, watching the various kinky acts on display. 

In fact, so much naughty action was captured that Friedkin claimed to have cut over 40 minutes to get the MPAA to downgrade it from an 'X' rating to 'R'. This lost footage, which Friedkin believed was destroyed by United Artists, has become the stuff of legend, with James Franco making a bizarre film about trying to recreate the scenes in 2013's 'Interior. Leather Bar.'

As a murder mystery, 'Cruising' is deeply opaque and ambiguous, with different actors portraying the killer, his creepy voice belonging to the father of one of the suspects. The butcher moves like a virus, switching hosts, shapeshifting to where at the film's conclusion we're left wondering if Pacino has become a killer or was one all along. This was Friedkin's intent, to leave it open. 

'Cruising' was met with intense protest during its production and upon release, with many in the gay community outraged over the film's violence and perceived stereotypes. In an early incarnation of cancel culture, calls to boycott the film were strong, with 'Stop the movie Cruising" pin buttons and numerous demonstrations in San Francisco and New York covered by the evening news. Despite the push back and tepid reviews, 'Cruising' outperformed its budget at the box office. A year later, the first cases of a rare cancer among gay men begin to be reported in news outlets and the clubs featured in 'Cruising' would soon be shuttered as the epidemic began to spiral.

When Arrow Video released their restored Blu-ray of 'Cruising' in 2019, fans commented on the noticeable blue tinge that had been added to many of the film's scenes. The transfer was approved by Friedkin and it is another example of a director's revisionist tinkering that seems to haunt many catalogs. Friedkin has also done similar edits to the original Blu-ray release of 'The French Connection'. The color grading issues on 'Cruising' were also present on MGM's 2007 DVD release, leading to claims that the original VHS releases are the only way to recapture the theatrical version  - albeit with a lower picture and audio presentation than on DVD and Blu-ray; I have all three versions. In addition to collecting different formats and releases of 'Cruising', I'd like to view a 35mm screening. Hopefully it will transport me to the original 1980 theatrical experience.

Going back in time is an obsession of mine. To be a fly on the wall or experience history myself. When I was in my mid twenties, with my first serious, cohabitating boyfriend, there was a disco dance party being thrown at a legendary leather bar on Michigan Avenue in Detroit's west side, The R&R Saloon. The ambiance of The R&R - shirtless bartenders serving beer in mason jars, an anything goes basement and leather harnesses - transported me to the long shuttered bars like the Hellfire Club in 'Cruising'. During these Macho City parties, DJ Mike Trombley would weave the cosmic soundtrack: "Menergy" by Patrick Cowley and Sylvester, "Forget Me Nots" by Patrice Rushen, "I Can't Wait" by NuShooz. And on a projector screen was Al Pacino in 'Cruising', watching us groove to the hot wax. On those sweaty Saturday nights, we were whisked to another time, another place.

Friedkin said it takes 50 years for a film to be regarded as a classic - has it stood the test of time? When 'The French Connection' celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2021, there was some reappraisals regarding the film's depiction of policing considering the recent progress made in social justice. This past June, an altered version of the film, with some racial slurs being excised, appeared on streaming services, causing an outcry from cinephiles, likening it to vandalizing art. 

What the recent critiques of Popeye Doyle's bad cop behavior fail to see is that it's a timeless depiction. The senseless assault of Rodney King occurred 20 years after 'The French Connection' and nearly 3 decades before George Floyd's murder. One can swap the pre-AIDS heydays of the leather bars in 'Cruising' for today's PrEP and hookup app culture. Human nature remains unchanged. 

Friedkin was interested in capturing the spiritual and existential. Viewing 'The Boys in The Band' now, it remains a riveting experience, with the concept of self-acceptance still relevant today despite the social progress. Watching the boys gossip on the patio about who's gay or bi or straight, their sexual exploits and hurling vicious taunts, made me wonder why Ryan Murphy didn't set his 2020 remake in modern times. Aside from updating the window dressing, Murphy wouldn't have had to alter the heart of playwright Mart Crowley's source material. While it's a fine adaptation, it lacks the raw energy of Friedkin's version, making it pointless, like Spielberg's 'West Side Story'. Thankfully it's the only one of Friedkin's films to be remade.

One of Friedkin's early efforts was directing the series finale of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "Off Season." The episode is set in the 'Psycho' multiverse, written by the novel's author Robert Bloch, about a trigger happy cop Johnny Kendall (John Gavin) who loses his job and then finds a gig in a sleepy town guarding summer homes. Johnny happens to be staying at the Summers Motel, better known as the Bates Motel in 'Psycho'. Even though Norman Bates isn't around, murder is afoot. It's a nicely done hour of television with the young Friedkin, 29 in 1965, in the shadow of the Master of Suspense.

Friedkin would often say that you can just watch Hitchcock's movies instead of going to film school. As time has revealed, there is plenty to learn from Friedkin as well.



What I watched in August:

8-1: Collateral [Paramount+]

8-2: The Fisher King [Criterion]

8-5: The Parallax View [Criterion Blu-ray]

8-6: Oppenheimer [Regal Mall of Georgia- 70mm IMAX], The Day After Trinity [Criterion]

8-7: Dead Bang [Amazon]

8-9: Five Fingers of Death [Arrow Blu-ray]

8-9: The Hunted [Max]

8-11: The Boxer from Shangtung [Arrow Blu-ray], To Live and Die in L.A. [Shout Factory Blu-ray]

8-12: Sorcerer [Blu-ray]

8-13: Q&A [Plex]

8-19: Five Shaolin Masters [Arrow Blu-ray]

8-20: Maggie Moore(s) [Blu-ray], My Best Friend is a Vampire [Vestron Blu-ray], Shaolin Temple [Arrow Blu-ray]

8-21: Kalifornia [Shout Blu-ray]

8-22: Zero Effect [Amazon]

8-23: Chameleon Street [Criterion]

8-24: The Front Runner [Blu-ray]

8-25: Heartbreakers (2001, David Mirkin) [Olive Blu-ray]

8-27: Talk to Me [AMC Madison Yards], Trespass (1992, Walter Hill) [Shout Blu-ray]

8-28: The Flash (2023, Andy Muschietti) [Max]

8-29: Out of the Furnace [Blu-ray]


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