William Friedkin is considered one of the most influential directors of the New Hollywood era, known for helming iconic and groundbreaking films that redefined genres. Throughout his decades-long career, Friedkin has brought his bold vision and technical mastery to both blockbuster crowd-pleasers and critically acclaimed art films.
Early Life and Influences
Childhood and Entry into Filmmaking
Friedkin was born in 1935 in Chicago, Illinois. From a young age, he was drawn to filmmaking and directing. After seeing Citizen Kane at age 16, Friedkin decided he wanted to become a film director. He started out directing documentaries and industrial films before transitioning to television and eventually feature films.
Learning from Great Directors
Early in his career, Friedkin worked with and learned from acclaimed filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. These experiences shaped Friedkin’s approach and ignited his ambition to push creative boundaries like his mentors had. Friedkin has frequently cited Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Fritz Lang as key influences.
Breakout Directorial Works
The French Connection
Friedkin’s commercial breakthrough came with 1971’s gritty police thriller The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman. Made on a modest budget, the film was both a critical and commercial smash hit. It pioneered the use of documentary-style cinematography and realistic action sequences in cop dramas. The French Connection earned Friedkin an Academy Award for Best Director.
In 1973, Friedkin helmed the hugely successful horror film The Exorcist based on William Peter Blatty’s novel. The Exorcist had an even bigger cultural impact than The French Connection. Its disturbing subject matter and technical achievements, like ingenious sound design, caused controversy but also advancements in the horror genre. The film became one of the highest grossing movies of all time.
Pushing Creative Boundaries
Sorcerer and Later Films
After back-to-back smash hits, Friedkin embarked on 1977’s Sorcerer starring Roy Scheider. The complex production about truck drivers in South America was regarded as an artistic triumph by critics, but it flopped at the box office. Friedkin continued working in both the mainstream and arthouse realms throughout the following decades on films like To Live and Die in L.A., Rules of Engagement, Bug, and Killer Joe.
Never one to play it safe, some of Friedkin’s later directorial efforts like the operatic horror film The Guardian have continued his penchant for provocation. Well into his 80s, Friedkin maintains his fiercely independent spirit. His 2021 memoir recounts his uncompromising directorial philosophy and storied career trajectory. Beyond filmmaking, he has also directed operas to great acclaim in his later years, merging various creative passions.
Key Directorial Traits
A signature of Friedkin’s work is his gritty realism and interest in extreme or transgressive subject matter. Scenes of graphic violence and sexuality permeate his filmography. He has long strived to achieve intense visceral reactions from audiences by depicting harsh realities. This is evident in everything from The French Connection’s drug bust scenes to the psychological extremis of Bug.
Friedkin’s films also reveal his exceptional technical abilities like complex camera movements and editing. He storyboards meticulously but also displays on-the-fly ingenuity like the famous car chase in The French Connection shot without permits. Especially in his 1970s heyday, his amalgamation of documentary-style immediacy and cinematic craft yielded powerfully authentic and kinetic results.
Friedkin has coaxed some of cinema’s most memorable performances from his lead actors, from The Exorcist’s Ellen Burstyn to To Live and Die in LA’s Willem Dafoe. His repeated collaborations with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider produced career-defining roles for both. Friedkin has described his acting collaborations as akin to father-son relationships rooted in trust and understanding.
Legacy and Impact
Lasting Influence on Genres
Tracing Friedkin’s legacy means reevaluating film genres he so indelibly transformed—the gritty cop thriller, the modern horror film, film noir. The French Connection established the template for the former; The Exorcist sparked countless imitations while remaining unmatched in its cultural footprint. To Live and Die in L.A. offered a neon-lit blast of 80s nihilism that presaged 90s film noir.
The Blockbuster Auteur
Alongside peers like Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdonovich, Friedkin exemplified the “New Hollywood” wave of young genre-bending auteurs. But he operated just as brilliantly in the populist blockbuster realm. Friedkin proved that personal artistic visions and mainstream crowd-pleasing entertainment could synergistically coexist in hits like The French Connection and The Exorcist. This blockbuster auteur duality paved the way for later hybrid successes.
Though his directorial output slowed in later decades, Friedkin’s dynamic legacy persists through ongoing reappraisals of his filmography and lasting imprints on contemporary cinema. To this day, directors cite him as an icon and films echo motifs born in his groundbreaking works. Beyond accolades and replication, Friedkin’s career conveys a certain bold, roguish filmmaking spirit—a willingness to startle, provoke, overwhelm, even alienate when artistic instincts demand it. That tempestuous creative passion makes his living legacy still feel electrically vital.
Through widely admired and sometimes polarizing films that have shaped genres and pushed boundaries, William Friedkin established himself as one of the most stylistically audacious directors of modern American cinema. The visceral power and emotional rawness he summons in his finest works represents the apex of what film as an art form can achieve. Though now in his late 80s, Friedkin’s unrelenting creative spirit, uncompromising worldview, and dynamic film legacy continue to captivate viewers and inspire fellow filmmakers in his wake.
William Friedkin’s Filmography
Good Times (1967)
Genre: Comedy Plot: This film follows a couple who win a trip to Las Vegas, encountering various comedic misadventures along the way. Reception: Limited information is available about its critical reception.
The Birthday Party (1968)
Genre: Drama Plot: A tense drama unfolds during a seemingly innocuous birthday party, revealing hidden tensions and secrets among the guests. Reception: Information on its critical reception is scarce.
The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968)
Genre: Comedy Plot: Set in the 1920s, this comedy revolves around the accidental invention of the striptease and the chaos that ensues. Reception: Critical reception details are not widely available.
The Boys in the Band (1970)
Genre: Drama Plot: A group of gay men gather for a birthday party, leading to confrontations and revelations about their lives. Reception: Initially controversial, it has gained recognition for its portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters.
The French Connection (1971)
Genre: Crime, Action Plot: Based on true events, this film follows two detectives as they attempt to dismantle a heroin-smuggling operation. Reception: Widely acclaimed, winning five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.
The Exorcist (1973)
Genre: Horror Plot: A young girl becomes possessed by a malevolent entity, leading to a battle between good and evil. Reception: Regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made, receiving critical acclaim and commercial success.
Genre: Thriller Plot: Four men with troubled pasts are hired to transport volatile explosives through the South American jungle. Reception: Initially a commercial failure, it has since gained a cult following and critical reevaluation.
The Brink’s Job (1978)
Genre: Crime, Comedy Plot: Based on a real-life heist, the film depicts a group of criminals planning and executing a robbery. Reception: Received positive reviews for its performances and humor.
Genre: Crime, Mystery Plot: A police officer goes undercover in New York City’s gay club scene to catch a serial killer targeting gay men. Reception: Controversial upon release, it received mixed reviews and sparked debates about its portrayal of LGBTQ+ culture.
Deal of the Century (1983)
Genre: Comedy Plot: A satire about arms dealing, focusing on a salesman trying to sell a weapon system to a South American dictator. Reception: Received mixed to negative reviews for its tonal inconsistency and handling of the subject matter.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Genre: Crime, Thriller Plot: A Secret Service agent seeks revenge on a counterfeiter after his partner is killed. Reception: Initially polarizing, it has since gained a cult following and is praised for its stylish direction and intense action sequences.
Genre: Crime, Drama Plot: A disturbed Vietnam War veteran embarks on a killing spree, leading to a tense standoff with law enforcement. Reception: Received mixed reviews, with praise for its performances but criticism for its portrayal of violence.
The Guardian (1990)
Genre: Horror Plot: A young couple hires a nanny who is revealed to be a supernatural being with sinister intentions. Reception: Received negative reviews for its derivative plot and lack of originality.
Blue Chips (1994)
Genre: Drama, Sport Plot: A college basketball coach faces ethical dilemmas when pressured to recruit talented players using underhanded methods. Reception: Received mixed reviews, praised for its realistic portrayal of college sports but criticized for its predictable plot.
Genre: Erotic thriller Plot: A murder investigation leads to a web of sexual intrigue and corruption in San Francisco’s elite circles. Reception: Received negative reviews for its convoluted plot and gratuitous sexual content.
Rules of Engagement (2000)
Genre: War, Drama Plot: A military lawyer defends his former commander accused of ordering a massacre in a foreign country. Reception: Received mixed reviews, praised for its performances but criticized for its simplistic portrayal of complex geopolitical issues.
The Hunted (2003)
Genre: Action, Thriller Plot: A tracker is hired to capture a trained assassin who has gone rogue and is targeting civilians. Reception: Received mixed to negative reviews for its generic plot and lackluster execution.
Genre: Psychological thriller Plot: A woman’s mental state deteriorates as she becomes convinced that insects are infiltrating her body. Reception: Received generally positive reviews for its intense performances and claustrophobic atmosphere.
Killer Joe (2011)
Genre: Crime, Drama Plot: A young man hires a hitman to kill his mother for insurance money, leading to a series of twisted and violent events. Reception: Received positive reviews for its dark humor and compelling performances.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (2023)
Genre: Drama Plot: A courtroom drama that delves into the trial of a naval captain accused of mutiny during World War II. Reception: Limited information is available about its critical reception.