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February 13 - February 22

The Uncanny Cinema of William Friedkin

One of the most dazzlingly accomplished and multi-talented filmmakers to emerge from the 1970s’ New Hollywood, William Friedkin (b. 1935) is best known for the series of landmark films which he directed in the 1970s and early 1980s, each a sophisticated and deeply influential reinvention of traditional genre formulas – the policier in The French Connection (1971) and Cruising (1980), the horror film in The Exorcist (1973), the adventure-thriller in Sorcerer (1977).

A consummate master of studio filmmaking, Friedkin has thrived as the rare empiricist within the dream factory, an artist driven by a curiosity to capture those dark, unseen mysteries that define the material world, without destroying their spell. Unlike his film school trained contemporaries, Friedkin discovered his own screen vocabulary in the streets of 1960s Chicago, where he sought a television career immediately after high school, steadily working his way up from the mailroom to the directing booth of local stations. While in Chicago, Friedkin crafted his stunning and politically acute verité documentary The People vs. Paul Crump (1962), which attracted the attention of maverick producer and filmmaker David L. Wolper, who invited the young director to Hollywood. Friedkin’s seemingly effortless transition to narrative filmmaking gave way to stylistically disparate yet consistently accomplished early works highlighted by his masterful adaptations of The Birthday Party (1968) and The Boys in the Band (1970). Friedkin did not return to his documentary roots until the early 1970s, with The French Connection and The Exorcist, two riveting films whose power lies in their extraordinarily gripping realism, an uncanny verisimilitude of detail and character based largely on Friedkin's own meticulous research and close consultation with the veteran New York police detectives and priests who were the real life models for his protagonists. Friedkin's still unacknowledged masterpiece, Sorcerer, an ambitious and successful reinterpretation of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1953), extended to heroic levels Friedkin's resolute commitment to realism and his belief that the deepest fears, hopes and mysteries of the modern age are best conjured not from
fantasy but from the shadows of a believable and strangely familiar world.

A garrulous and engaging speaker, William Friedkin will be present to discuss his work at the Harvard Film Archive on February 20th and 21st.

Introduction and film notes co-written by Nat Segaloff, author of Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin (NY: William Morrow, 1990). Special thanks: MayHaduong, Academy Film Archive; Barry Allen, Paramount; Marcia Franklin, William Friedkin Productions; Chris Argyropoulos, Fox Home Entertainment. Support provided by the Academy Foundation of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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Friday February 13 at 7pm

The Exorcist

Directed by William Friedkin.
Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair
US 1973/2000, 35mm, color, 132 min.
Print from Warner Bros.

So much attention has been given to the absolutely terrifying qualities of The Exorcist that few have noted the remarkably convincing realism that lies at the heart of Friedkin's best known and most notorious film. Friedkin applied his energetic documentary style to William Peter Blatty’s best-selling, faith-based story of modern-day demonic possession, eschewing traditional visual trickery while embracing innovative make-up and mechanical effects, along with a devilishly sophisticated magnetic sound track. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, The Exorcist reinvented the American horror film, bringing a new depth, complexity and pathos to the genre. In 2000 Friedkin controversially restored deleted scenes, including the legendary “spider walk,” and added visual effects to deepen the textures of his film, resulting in the longer and truly fascinating director's cut presented at the HFA.

Linda Blair Screen Tests

US 1973, 35mm, color, 3 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection

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Friday February 13 at 9:30pm

To Live and Die in L.A.

Directed by William Friedkin.
With William L. Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow
US 1985, color, 35mm, 116 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection

Friedkin's feverish exploration of the Los Angeles criminal underworld follows a pair of Secret Service agents forced to take the most desperate measures to capture a violent counterfeiter and avoid the numb police bureaucracy threatening to foil their every effort. Willem Dafoe brings a mysteriously brooding glamour and almost feline quality to the shadowy criminal mastermind who embodies the world of sunshine and noir brilliantly captured by Friedkin and cinematographer Robby Muller. Released during a studio meltdown, To Live and Die in L.A. survived an attempted sabotage by MGM to be canonized as one of Friedkin's most accomplished and popular works.

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Saturday February 14 at 7pm

Cruising

Directed by William Friedkin.
With Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen
US 1980, 35mm, color, 102 min.
Print from Warner Bros.

As word spread that Friedkin was working on a crime drama set in New York's gay leather subculture, vociferous protests were staged throughout the film’s production by gay activists who feared that the film would negatively represent homosexual life in America. As usual, Friedkin simultaneously courted and rose above the controversy to produce the dark chronicle of an ambitious young detective (an intense Al Pacino in one his most important mid-career roles) who discovers previously unknown fears and desires within himself when he goes undercover to catch a vicious killer of gay men. Like its hero, Cruising is both voyeuristically intense and alienating, alternately probing the secret shadows of the S&M club world while upholding the institutional perspective of the police procedural genre.

The Boys in the Band

Directed by William Friedkin.
With Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman
US 1970, video, color, 118 min.
Print from CBS

One of the first films to reflect the Motion Picture Association of America's newly permissive rating system – which nevertheless slapped it with an “R” rating solely for its theme – The Boys in the Band went into production on the eve of the Stonewall riots, and was released with the emergence of the Gay Liberation movement. Friedkin's chronicle of a Greenwich Village birthday party attended by a group of gay men, one of whom just might be heterosexual, is both a time capsule and a celebratory anthem. Relentlessly quotable, and earnestly performed by the show’s original 1968 off-Broadway cast, Boys is a deeply satisfying cinematic reinvention of a stage drama that preserves the claustrophobia and bittersweet qualities of the source material.

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Sunday February 15 at 3pm

The Birthday Party

Directed by William Friedkin.
With Robert Shaw, Sydney Tafler, Patrick Magee
UK 1968, 35mm, color, 123 min.
Print from Disney

Paranoia, sadism, and collective guilt invade a British seaside resort when two strangers make it their business – or perhaps it’s their pleasure – to destroy the mental stability of a lonely boarder whose fragile vulnerability is wonderfully played by Robert Shaw. Pinter’s stylized dialogue, which includes lines censored for the play's 1958 British debut, is energized by Friedkin’s relentlessly invasive and intelligent camerawork. The Birthday Party, along with Friedkin's other 1968 feature, The Boys in the Band,  revealed his great talent  as a director of filmed plays, a reputation which he would deliberately and radically break from with his next film, The French Connection.

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Special Event Tickets $10
Friday February 20 at 7pm

The French Connection

Directed by William Friedkin, Appearing in Person
With Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider
US 1971, video, color, 104 min.
Print from 20th Century Fox

Exploring the strange symmetry between policeman and criminal, Friedkin's Oscar-winning policier codified the screen syntax for an entire genre of hand-held, off-the-cuff, obsessive crime dramas, most notably TV’s fecund Law & Order series. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider are the simmering, cynical pair of New York detectives who single-handedly set out to stop Fernando Rey's dapper French drug smuggler from bringing a huge stash of heroin into Manhattan. Based on an actual—and eventually closed—narcotics case, The French Connection extends its startling documentary-style realism even into its incredible action sequences, highlighted by quite simply the greatest car chase of American cinema.  

The People vs. Paul Crump

Directed by William Friedkin, Appearing in Person
US 1962, 16mm, b/w, 59 min.
Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive

While directing local television news programs at Chicago's WBKB, twenty-seven-year old Friedkin and cameraman Wilmer “Bill” Butler took to the streets with then-new lightweight 16mm cameras to make this riveting and moving  documentary about Paul Crump, a black man on death row for a 1953 robbery that ended in a murder he did not commit. An important touchstone in Friedkin's oeuvre and a key to understanding his documentary approach to cinema, The People vs. Paul Crump is also a key expression of cinematic activism at its purest and most powerful. Friedkin remained an advocate of Crump’s until his 2002 death – behind bars – at the age of seventy-two.

 Listen to this evening's introduction, discussion and Q&A.

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Special Event Tickets $10
Saturday February 21 at 7pm

Sorcerer

Directed by William Friedkin, Appearing in Person
With Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal
US 1977, 35mm, color, 121 min.
Print from Paramount

Four seedy criminal outcasts risk their lives in pursuit of redemption, both legal and moral, by driving unreliable trucks stocked with nitroglycerine through dangerous landscape to cap an oil well fire in a Central American banana republic. Featuring a trance-like score by Tangerine Dream and a visceral, astonishing performance by Roy Scheider, Friedkin's reinterpretation of Clouzot’s 1953 masterpiece is perhaps the best remake of all time and is among Friedkin’s most daring works. Three sequences alone – a chaotic car crash in New Jersey, the unloading of charred bodies in a Central American village, and the explosives laden trucks crossing a rickety storm-blown bridge – render Sorcerer a classic and retain their power to make audiences gasp. Released the same year as Star Wars, Friedkin's audacious masterpiece represents the braver road abandoned by the studio system.

The Hunted

Directed by William Friedkin, Appearing in Person
With Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Connie Nielsen
US 2003, 35mm, color, 94 min.
Print from Swank

As with his earlier police dramas, Friedkin explores the skewed morality of the armed forces in this gripping thriller about a retired government agent brought back by the F.B.I. to track his former protégé, an assassin whose wartime experiences have left him murderously unhinged. Stripping their characters to the barest essentials, Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro engage in scenes of almost primitive physicality, with hand-to-hand fight sequences choreographed in Friedkin’s trademark documentary style. The Hunted is driven by Jones’ relentless energy and muscular filmmaking that showed that Friedkin—even in his 60s—had not lost his visceral touch.

 Listen to this evening's introduction, discussion and Q&A.

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Sunday February 22 at 3pm

The Brink's Job

Directed by William Friedkin.
With Peter Falk, Peter Boyle, Allen Goorwitz
US 1978, 35mm, color, 104 min.
Print from Universal Pictures

This spirited homage to Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) is a recreation of the actual 1950 Brink’s robbery by a gang of North End hoods. Life briefly imitated art when local mobsters shook down producer Dino De Laurentiis during the production’s summer shoot in Boston. The Brink’s Job's  playful evocation of 1950s Boston and the screwy Tony Pino gang becomes increasingly dark and bizarre as the truth emerges about the bank, the FBI, and what happens to people who get in over their heads.

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700