Still in motion
Nonetheless, The French Connection did seem to neatly combine Friedkin’s funkier sensibilities – he was an avowed apostle of the French New Wave – with the populist instincts for which Hawks was arguing. A crime drama shot on location in New York City, the picture had the nervous energy of a documentary. Even today, it seems agreeably, deliberately messy.
“The studio didn’t really understand the film until it came out,” he says. “They didn’t promote it that much. They released it in some areas as a double feature. But for some reason – with the grace of God – it just came out of the gate like a thoroughbred. It ran wire to wire, made a ton of money and won five Academy Awards.”
The French Connection was big. But his next film, The Exorcist, deserves to have the cliché “phenomenon” flung in its direction. Anybody old enough to be vaguely cognisant in 1973, will recall the media having a collective nervous breakdown on its release. If the accounts were to be believed, viewers were suffering nervous breakdowns, falling into trances and begging to be accepted into closed convents. A tale of possession set in a middle-class house, The Exorcist ate the box-office alive and, thereby, proved that horror could work in the mainstream.
Does a day ever go past when he is not asked about The Exorcist?
“Very rarely. But I don’t mind. I still love the film,” he says. “You know, many of those stories are true. There was a story about a classmate of Prince Charles’s who, after seeing the film, ran into a church and immolated himself.”
Many subsequent tomes and documentaries have argued that Friedkin acted in an eccentric and extreme manner while on set. Three stories in particular hang around: he let off firearms to trigger believable shock in his actors; he tugged Ellen Burstyn, who played the possessed girl’s mother, so violently that she permanently damaged her back; he walloped Father William O’Malley, playing an older priest, to help him summon up the right degree of weepy trauma.
Freidkin patiently dismisses Burstyn’s claims as “a self-serving hoax”. He admits that he let off shotguns, but argues that directors such as George Stevens had been doing the same thing for decades. The story about Father O’Malley, also a religious advisor on the film, seems to be entirely true.
“He couldn’t get to tears. We had take after take and he just couldn’t get it,” he explains. “I took him aside and said: ‘You know I love you.’ He said: ‘Yes and I love you like a brother in Christ.’ I turned away and turned back and struck him so hard that he was shocked and surprised. It brought back a sense memory and we did it all in one take.”
Friedkin seems happy to engage with all the campfire tales that have grown up around him. He goes on to admit that he made a mistake when – following wild demands from the actor – he decided not to cast Steve McQueen in Sorceror, his financially disappointing follow-up to The Exorcist.