BLOG: William Friedkin’s legacy of gamechangers: “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist”

| August 8, 2023

In most cases, when a great director passes, the news outlets focus only on their most notable works while slighting the best work in their canon.  The case was rare with William Friedkin who died yesterday at the age of 87 and whose two heralded films were The French Connection and The Exorcist – not a bad pair of films to leave behind.  Both were massive game-changers that re-invented their respective genres in ways that shook our sensibilities.

The year that I was born came The French Connection, a shock to the system, a gritty police drama that – much like Dirty Harry the same year – upended the notions of law and order and due process and featured a cop (Gene Hackman) going above, away and around the law to get his man – a real thumb-in-the-eye to the button-down law and order tactics of “Dragnet.” 

The French Connection would have an impact the reverberated throughout the decade and beyond.  In its wake would come a mass volley of movies and TV shows about cops of ambiguous moral standards.  Just this decade alone, we had Chinatown, Serpico, The Gauntlet, Freebie and the Bean and Prince of the City before the 80s exploded into a pot-boiling beefcake genre all its own.  In that, perhaps, the impact of The French Connection no longer stings, but one can’t dismiss its value.  It is still a great film, especially when you consider that you can still feel its impact on television on “Law and Order”, “Blue Bloods” and “Chicago P.D.”

Perhaps, even more of a cultural earthquake was The Exorcist which came two years later in 1973.  I was only a toddler when the film came out and in my formative years – and my early cinema education – I heard the stories about adult patrons fleeing the theater in terror to expel their lunch onto the sidewalk; women left the film shaken and disturbed (there are news bits on YouTube that confirm this).  And, of course, the impact of all of that hoo-ha was coupled with the sight of people leaving the theater then turning around and getting back in line for the next show, a new phenomenon which would reach it’s peak in a few years with Jaws and then Star Wars.

The first time that I peered into the window of The Exorcist, I must have been around five or six.  It was some clip show that featured the scene in which Ellen Burstyn runs into her daughter’s room which is flying apart thanks to some supernatural something-or-other.  All I knew at that moment was that I didn’t want to stick around.  It kept me awake over the next few nights.

Of that, I avoided The Exorcist until, well . . . my college years.  With a more sensible, mature brain I entered into the film to see what all the fuss was about.  What surprised me was how real it all felt.  Yeah, it’s a lot of boisterous cacophony about the terrors inflicted by a Satanic force on an innocent little girl, but there is something special about the film.  Away from those effects is something rare – the impact of people trying to deal with things that logic dictates aren’t suppose to exist.

It is Reagan’s mother Chris and the priest Father Karras that are the binding glue of the film.  She, a practical woman who probably never had a religious experience in her life.  He, a man of God whose faith is shaken by the grime and decay of the world around him – where is God in all of this and what good is a priest in a world that has ceased to listen to him?  How can they pull themselves together in order to save this little girl?

The key to The Exorcist is in the world that Friedkin creates.  It never feels like a movie set.  There’s a gritty reality here.  We feel, in this movie, much like we do when we step out on the sidewalk.  We’re in the real world, and that set against the special effects, makes those louder moments with Reagan all the more terrifying.  If there were any hint of irreality, the movie wouldn’t work.

There’s something else I noticed upon revisiting the film recently: there is never an origin or purpose given for the possession. The demon has possessed the body of this young girl, but we are never told why. There are several theories: there’s the reappearance of a strange statue of Pazuzu (a Assyro-Babylonian demon) that Father Merran finds in the Iraqi desert; there are some early scenes the suggest that Reagan has been communicating with a certain Captain Howdy through a Ouija board; but we are never given an explanation of what exactly has taken place. We only see the results. I think that’s wise because it gives the movie a slant of unpredictability and doesn’t waste time bogging down the plot in overwrought exposition.  This was the element that its imitators would abandon (there has never been a good possession movie since).

Of course, if the impact of The French Connection was a genre of beefcake cop action thrillers, then The Exorcist spawned a far worse series of two-dollar gut-bucket horror films that tried to recreate its loudest scenes but forgot the subtlety.  Both films were the product of the breakdown of the production code, but The Exorcist has a more questionable legacy.  Yes, its success spawned more outwardly horrifying spectacles free of the confines of said production code like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen, Halloween, Don’t Look Now, Carrie, Alien, and pretty much anything directed by Dario Argento.  But none matched its intensity, it’s subtlety, its feel for the moment both on the screen and off.

Again, if Friedkin’s legacy had to be tied to anything, this is a pretty good double-feature to be tied to.  The reverberations of these two films on the big and small screen is still felt today.  Its everywhere you look in popular culture and that’s something special to leave behind.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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