Tuesday, July 13, 2010

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN - Never a Dull Moment

William Friedkin: well dressed, but difficult

Cinephiles can argue about anything but most agree that the 70s was one of the most fertile and fascinating periods in cinema history. So many legendary films were made in the 70s it's as if there was something in the water. (In his excellent book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind explores this period in great detail. I recommend you read it.) The reality is that the movie industry is very much a product of the times. Following the cultural revolution of the mid to late 60s, the Vietnam War and Watergate, there was a powerful drive to tell stories that had meaning beyond box office profits. Plus people were snorting a lot of cocaine and that really helped to loosen things up. Whatever the reasons, movie-makers weren't ruled by the bottom line, and seemed to be given a longer leash than they are today. Films were dark, gritty, powerful. There was a humanity about the stories, something real. Most of the actors weren't even that good looking (who would cast Christopher Walken in a leading role today?). This in particular was a great boon to the younger generation, the up-and-coming auteurs who had something to prove. One of these young knights was William Friedkin, a brash, outspoken and extremely bright cinephile with some big ideas about how pictures should look. Friedkin was out of television and had done a couple of features, including a documentary that won some attention, but nothing major. But he still had the chutzpah to turn The French Connection into one of the most powerful movies of the decade, or any decade for that matter. Some say that early success is never a good thing, and it's certainly true that he never managed to duplicate the massive critical and commercial success of his earlier work. But talent is talent, and I believe anything Friedkin touches is worth a look. No matter what Friedkin feature you're watching, its guaranteed to entertain, and sometimes be so insanely entertaining, you totally forget the world around you. And when it comes to movies, I can't think of much higher praise than that.

The French Connection (1971)

It seems amazing now that Friedkin was in his 30s when he helmed this film, particularly as it swept the boards at the Academy awards that year, walking off with no less than 5 statues, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Actor for Gene Hackman. Truth be told, the movie is just as startling and relevant today as it was then, and its influence has not abated, and can be seen in groundbreaking television series like The Wire and The Sopranos plus any other number of gritty crime dramas. NYC itself really sets the tone, and Friedkin scoured the city to find exactly the right locations - the desolate vacant lots and trash-strewn streets, the all night bars and nightclubs, even the famous subway, these things are a palpable presence in the film. Combined with the documentary style camerawork and rapid-fire editing, it made for a galvanising experience, like being wired on too little sleep and too much instant coffee. Front and center of the whole saga is a gigantic performance by the amazing Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle, the maniacal and unhinged narc. Doyle rampages through the streets like a runaway Panzer tank, glowering under his pork-pie hat at the world and going off like a half-cocked IED at the drop of a matchstick. It's one of most memorable performances of modern day cinema and it made Hackman a star, although lucky for us, he was too intelligent an actor and just plain wierd looking to ever settle for dopey lead man roles. Amazingly Hackman topped even this achievement in French Connection II (directed by John Frankenheimer), which is one of the very few sequels to give the original a run for its money.

The Exorcist (1973)

This is one of those films that have become a legend in the industry. Possibly the quintessential horror movie, it is still talked about in hushed tones and only recently was made available in all its full gory glory. Despite the limitations of the time in terms of special effects, the makers managed to create enough atmosphere through canny choice of locations, excellent casting and the memorable score (critical to any horror flick). The movie made tremendous amounts of money and firmly established horror films as box office crowd pleasers of note. The plot concerns a teenage girl (Linda Blair) who has begun to behave very oddly. So what's unusual about that you say? Well, the odd behaviour includes crawling around on the ceiling and speaking in ancient languages, so even for a teenager it's a little bizarre. The mom (Ellen Burstyn) tries the psychiatric route but that proves to be a bust, so in desperation she goes to a Catholic priest (Max von Sydow). The good padre doesn't need much time to figure out he's dealing with a major case of demon possession. After that, things get really hairy, with several now infamous scenes involving projectile pea soup vomit, head-spinning and crucifix abuse, as the good Father battles mightily to rid the girl of the demon and restore the household to normalcy. The Exorcist may seem a little quaint in the light of what passes for horror today but it remains a powerful and riveting experience (especially if you watch it alone). The trick of a deep masculine voice spewing obscenities from a young girl's mouth is remarkably effective, so much so that whenever you see a 'haunted house' movie these days they inevitably trot it out for good measure. At bottom, however, Exorcist has become a novelty, a curiosity from the past. 'Just how bad is it really?', seems to be the main motivation to watch it now. And due to its reliance on special effects and transparent attempts to 'shock' its audience, it has not aged as well as other films from the period. Although its notoriety has almost certainly guaranteed it will live on as an enduring cult classic.

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

If anything this underrated classic can be viewed as French Connection III, The West Coast Connection. It conveys the same intensity as Friedkin's first big movie, transposed to the sun-bleached highways and over-sized airports of Los Angeles. Once again Friedkin uses the cop on a mission as his vehicle. This time it's Detective Richard Chance, played by a very young William Peterson of CSI: Vegas fame, and instead of drugs its a counterfeit gang lead by Rick Masters, played with suitably oily charm by Willem Defoe. The gang killed his ex-partner (we'll forgive him the cliche and you'll see why in a minute) so he's hellbent on nailing Masters. Friedkin turns up the heat big time in this one and has the perfect foil in Petersen, who acts his little heart out playing Chance. Despite being hampered by the dubious fashion choices of the era (tight jeans and cowboy boots, which highlight Petersen's bandy legs), he gives a scorching portrayal of the near psychopathic cop, willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to nail his guy. Friedkin once again makes excellent use of the Los Angeles locations and a truly hair-raising car chase is an obvious choice (strengthening comparisons with French Connection). However, just as you think you've got the thing all figured out, Friedkin gives his audience - no doubt far more jaded in 85 than they were in 71 - a savage wake-up call that lets him neatly off the hook for all the cliches that have come before. A riveting thriller that has lost none of its power despite the passing of time (although the soundtrack by Wing Chung might seem a little odd at first).

Rules of Engagement (2000)

I must confess, until I happened to catch a re-run of this on cable the other night, I didn't even know it was a Friedkin film. Suddenly it all made sense. At first glance, RoE comes across as another turkey in the style of A Few Good Men (don't ask me why people love that movie so much). The military court room drama has been a staple of cinema ever since the days of Billy Budd. Lately, however, we've been cursed by quite a few feeble efforts, including the aforementioned Cruise vehicle among many other numb-nutted outings, one of which featured John Travolta for some incomprehensible reason. But Rules of Engagement is a definite cut above these feeble attempts. For one thing it features Sam Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, two of the finest character actors at work today. For another, its extremely topical. As of right this minute, the US Army's rules of engagement are a super hot potato that is causing no end of problems to fighting men in the Afghanistan theatre. The problem has become more profound in today's wars because insurgents don't wear uniforms. They blend in with the local population and are very often supported by the local population. But the wars of today are fought in the public eye and when civilians are killed by a military strike, asses are usually in a very big sling. This dilemma forms the basis of the plot for RoE, and it starts with a bang, as Sergeant Terry Childers, played by Sam Jackson, is called in with his company of marines, to rescue the US Ambassador to Yemen who is under siege at the embassy. Friedkin handles the attack with considerable aplomb and the violence is real and gut-wrenching, conveying the so-called 'fog of war' very accurately. This is crucial to the plot, as Childers' decisions in the heat of battle are later brought into question when the Yemenis cry foul at the dead civilians piled up in front of the embassy building. The US political machine decides to make a scapegoat out of Childers and thus the courtroom component of the story comes into play. Childers decides he wants an old army buddy to defend him, Colonel Hayes Hodges, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Turns out Childers saved Hodges' ass back in Vietnam and now its Hodges turn to repay the debt. Naturally there is a fire-breathing prosecutor to wind up the ensemble and Guy Pearce does a fine job of playing the hatchet man. Much of the pleasure though comes from watching Sam Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones at work, as these two very fine players can really bring it when they have to. Friedkin gets fine performances from both of them, and thereby manages to elevate the film beyond the limitations of the genre.

The Hunted (2003)

I had high hopes for this one but unfortunately it wasn't quite up to Friedkin's usual standards. Much of the blame must surely be laid on the feeble script. The premise is undoubtedly an interesting one, but its vast potential is never fully realised and some aspects of the story are simply very difficult to swallow. The plot concerns a highly trained operative in some secret squirrel branch of the army (exactly which unit this may be is never made clear but it's most likely Delta Force) who's job it is to dispatch troublesome people when other more 'conventional' methods to get them to quit their murderin' and rapin' have failed. The movie opens in some distant hellhole (I believe it's Bosnia-Herzogevina) with just such an action about to be carried out. The operative, Aron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro) performs his duty admirably, but appears to suffer some major post-tramautic stress disorder as a result and the next thing a pair of hunters turn up dead in a very remote region of the Pacific North West. Except they're not just dead, they've been skinned alive. In a truly remarkable deduction, the investigating officers figure out that the crime has been committed by someone with highly specialised skills of the type only taught by the military. Enter LT (Tommy Lee Jones), a former instructor who for many years trained said operatives in the dark arts of war, including our boy Hallam. From that point on we enter familiar territory for those who have seen Tommy Lee's 'Fugitive' pictures and The Hunted pretty much degenerates into a chase film. Although it is very slick material with enough to hold the interest in terms of pace, scenery and two superb craftsmen in the form of Tommy Lee and Benicio, it never manages to rise above the limitations of the story. The guilty parties are undoubtedly the script writers, possibly because The Hunted was not born from a novel but rather started out as a movie idea. Whatever the reason, the story is simply very thin. There are a great deal of unanswered questions, and Hallam's character in particular is very one dimensional. He remains a mystery right up to the inevitable conclusion, but not in a good way. Where the movie does succeed is in keeping the tension high, making excellent use of locations, including some stunning wilderness and an amazing water-logged setting for the final confrontation, as well as a nicely-executed chase sequence through an urban setting. To be sure, when it comes to action, Friedkin hasn't lost his touch. It's worth a look but don't expect anything too deep. For a lazy Saturday afternoon, however, it's just about perfect.

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