Filmmaker Orson Welles supposedly once said of masterpieces, “Well, you only need one.” The subject of Francesco Zippel’s documentary, director William Friedkin, has made more than a few in his fifty year career, some popular and acclaimed, others forgotten. Probably the Friedkin film that has left the deepest cultural impact, THE EXORCIST (1973), is still one of the most frightening motion pictures ever made which, like Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), sent the horror genre spinning into an entirely new direction.
Friedkin was still in his twenties, working at a Chicago television station when he made the one hour documentary, THE PEOPLE VS. PAUL CRUMP (1962), a film which aided in the commutation of a convicted murderer’s death sentence. After making three more acclaimed docs, Friedkin moved into fiction eventually shooting his groundbreaking cop thriller, THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), which garnered him a directing Oscar and the film a Best Picture nod.
In the mid-1970’s, William Friedkin could do whatever he wished. But following the excessive path of many of the Hollywood whiz-kids of the American New Wave, Friedkin wandered off into high artistic ambition, out of control budgets and a heart attack that nearly killed him (surprisingly not mentioned in Zippel’s doc).
Zippel chronicles the unconventional life of Friedkin, following the 83 year old moviemaker as he premieres his new doc in Venice, THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH, a portrait of a real life exorcist. In the interviews and festival appearances Zippel captures on camera, Friedkin is always loud, bombastic. When he receives a lifetime achievement award in a medium-sized film fest, Friedkin dramatically tells the audience that the prize means more to him than an Oscar. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Friedkin is making fun of the proceedings.
Though Zippel’s interviews are more informative than revelatory, it’s the conversations with Friedkin’s many actor collaborators (THE EXORCIST’S Ellen Burstyn, Wilem Dafoe, Matthew McConaughey) that are the most fascinating into understanding the director’s methods.
But its superfan Quentin Tarantino who provides incredibly detailed insight into what many consider to be Friedkin’s masterwork, the grandiose SORCERER (1977), a remake of his hero Henri Georges Clouzot’s South American adventure epic THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953). Tarantino muses on Friedkin’s damned SORCERER which unfortunately flopped when it was released at the same time as STAR WARS (1977). Quentin seems genuinely heartbroken that SORCERER never got its due, a failure he attributes to miscasting and a title that should have been WILLIAM FRIEDKIN’S DYNAMITE!
If anything, Zippel’s doc seems too short. There’s virtually nothing about his controversial THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970) or his seldom seen television work (like his extraordinary 1986 episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’). And what about the heist drama, THE BRINK’S JOB, where real-life thieves stole the film, demanded a ransom and Friedkin defiantly told the robbers to go get a projector and keep the film? Maybe FRIEDKIN UNCUT (Directors Cut Uncut)?
FRIEDKIN UNCUT plays in the series Shadowplay: Film on Film until August 25th.