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William Friedkin was a master of suspense.


“No technique.”

“No style.”

These are quotes from William Friedkin when the filmmaker spoke in the context of deliberately failing to do conventional tricks on “The Exorcist,” the biggest hit and most frighteningly influential horror movie of the 1970s.

The bloody terror inflicted on Linda Blair’s Regan at that 1973 turning point? In a speech, Friedkin said they would be more frightening and less negligible. 1998 Guardian interview, if I consciously set out not to style ‘The Exorcist’. Just here it is.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Friedkin brought his own documentary sharpened techniques and sharp-edged honesty to this film and much more. He died on August 7, at the age of 87, at his home in Bel Air, California, where he lived with his wife, Sherry Lansing, former president of Paramount Pictures and a Chicago native.

Like many famous directors, Friedkin suffered more failures than hits, and his fall from the heights of Hollywood was more remarkable and painful than most directors. But their greatest successes, “The Exorcist” and their earlier “The French Connection” (1971), changed the course of American commercial cinema, and their audiences were overwhelmed in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Friedkin’s most notable achievements set a new street-level tone and direction for onscreen violence – his detractors would call it screen recklessness.

He grew up the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants whose family fled in 1903 in the face of anti-Semitic pogroms. He graduated from Senn High School on Chicago’s North Side, where he played impressive basketball but wasn’t much of a student. .

At 17, he got a job in the WGN-TV mailroom. He joined the production team in the late 1950s as a director and writer at WGN and later on WTTW-Channel 11. He has worked on WGN on “The Bozo Show” and game-changing nonfiction TV shows. For the scene in Chicago, he often co-wrote with Chicago Tribune writer Francis Coughlin; “The Death of Caesar,” a 1957 historical collage staged at the Hotel Sherman, combined Shakespeare, Plutarch, and classical music.

In 1961, Friedkin made the news when commercial sponsors of the “Folk Song Festival,” a concert special to WBKB Channel 7, censored a song by Josh White called “Free and Equal Blues.”

“They cut the best song,” Friedkin later said, “(that’s why) I took my name off the production. To me, the cut was done out of fear of offending the bigots.”

The following year, the 52-minute TV show “The People vs. Paul Crump” single-handedly saved the life of a wrongfully convicted man. As Rick Kogan of the Tribune wrote In 2018, the director “heard about Crump’s case from the vicar at a party and, despite never making a movie, he created a lively, lively and compelling film very cheaply. … (Friedkin) recreates, in a heart-pounding and visually exciting style, the robbery and murder, followed by the arrest and torture by Crump’s alleged (Chicago) detectives.”

“It’s impossible to forget,” wrote Kogan.

After moving to Los Angeles to work for David Wolper’s documentary production company, Friedkin performed at an all-round long, first with a Sonny and Cher show (“Good Times”, 1967), then a wildly burlesque tribute (“The Night They Raided Minsky’s”). entered feature films. ,” 1968) and one of many stage adaptations: Mart Crowley’s seminal gay mosaic “The Boys in the Band” (1970).

Then came the movie that shaped his career: “The French Connection,” which won an Oscar for best picture, best actor (Gene Hackman, who quit at one point during tough filming in New York City), and best director for Friedkin.

Friedkin told Gene Siskel in 1980 that the years of Chicago documentary filmmaking had served this project well with new lightweight and highly portable cameras that fit perfectly into the hustle and bustle style of street-level realism. Following rogue detective Popeye Doyle’s relentless pursuit of heroin smugglers, some style was undoubtedly at work here: filthy, rambling, annoying.

At the end of Friedkin’s golden decade, he had already fallen into the eyes of Hollywood after the failure of the expensive, brooding 1977 thriller drama “The Wizard” (a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic “The Wages of Fear”). It was the text of “Star Wars”. And for a long time, and perhaps permanently, “Star Wars” re-equipped America first for lightsabers and a kind of perpetual puberty.

He continued to work both inside and outside the studio system, which was slowly falling apart. Twice, he brought the plays of Chicago-trained Tracy Letts to the big screen with intriguing results: “Killer Joe” and “Bug.”

Friedkin’s latest project, again derived from theatre, will premiere at the Venice International Film Festival later this month: Kiefer Sutherland and the new movie “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” starring the late Lance Reddick, who died shortly after Friedkin finished filming. adaptation earlier this year.

Friedkin would frequently return to Chicago for awards presented in his honor at the Chicago International Film Festival and other events. Another Chicago-born film director, Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive”), recalled once dining at The Berghoff in the Loop. He saw Friedkin holding a corned beef sandwich two tables away.

“He told me he had a two-hour layover at O’Hare,” Davis told the Tribune on Monday. “So he came downtown for corned beef.”

Late in his life, Friedkin entertained audiences at festivals and screenings with memories of his favorite things, from “Citizen Kane” to “The Band Wagon” to “Psycho,” including a “Wizard” presentation at the Chicago Film Critics Association. Finally, when he spoke, he spoke like Chicago like nowhere else. Specifically, the Chicago intersection of Foster Avenue and Sheridan Road is where he started his childhood in a one-bedroom apartment before life and movies broadened his horizons.

He put it this way in a 1998 Guardian interview: “I started in the mailroom (on WGN-TV) in Chicago and disappointed everyone because they thought I was going to take over the mailroom one day!” This did not happen. But Friedkin still managed, and his best work will continue to break nerves, spark controversy, and draw attention for a long time.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.


twitter @phillipstribune


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