For a director who hasn’t made a major film in nearly a decade, William Friedkin is undergoing something of a surprising revival. The 84-year-old American director’s up-and-down career has enjoyed a collective critical appraisal in recent years, while he has been the subject of multiple documentaries: the kind of film-maker-becoming-the-film treatment that few auteurs get once in their careers. One such, admittedly, he made himself. The Devil and Father Amorth (2017), on Netflix, is an indulgent curio that attempts to revive the mythos of Friedkin’s 1973 horror tale of satanic possession, The Exorcist, while Alexandre O Philippe’s still unreleased Leap of Faith takes a longer, more enlightening view on the same film.
But Friedkin Uncut, available to stream from 17 August (multiple platforms), is a lively, all-encompassing primer for fans of his work and newcomers alike. Francesco Zippel’s documentary is no-frills stuff, centred straightforwardly on Friedkin as he talks us through his six-decade career, from TV documentaries in the early 1960s to Oscar-winning mainstream success in the 70s and various peaks and valleys since. The veteran director is a good, witty storyteller, equal parts self-effacing and self-aggrandising, so you don’t need much more than that – though assorted friends and admirers, including Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright, are on hand to pat his back too. It’s not a penetrating critique, but it does whet your appetite to revisit more neglected corners of Friedkin’s fascinating filmography.
The pillars of his reputation remain solidly entrenched. The French Connection (on Microsoft Store) still has the sweaty, stripped-back grit that made it so bracing among hordes of identikit cop thrillers in 1971, while The Exorcist (iTunes) remains a stately, sincerely unnerving horror touchstone, undiminished by infinite imitation and parody, and worthy of the reams of analysis it has inspired. (My colleague Mark Kermode’s own Exorcist-fixated doc The Fear of God is on BBC iPlayer.)
Away from these two, things get more interestingly divisive, and you can navigate your own critical path. Prior to The French Connection, it’s a rum collection of novelties and experiments. Sadly, only YouTube clips are available online of his gaudy Sonny and Cher vehicle Good Times, but they’re delightful all the same, while YouTube also yields the 47-minute Off Season, his strikingly cruel, hard-boiled contribution to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Two attempts at filming stage plays demonstrated more offbeat, intimate interests than Friedkin’s later genre hits suggested: he’s a better match for the strange perversity of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (YouTube) than you might think. Ditto his sensitive take on Mart Crowley’s unavoidably dated landmark 1968 gay drama The Boys in the Band (Vimeo) – worth revisiting before Netflix’s presumably slick, Ryan Murphy-produced version lands later this year.
In Friedkin Uncut, the director names the film he’d most like to be remembered for as 1977’s Sorcerer (on Amazon), and it’s a fair call. Once sidelined as a post-Exorcist letdown, his muscular, hard-driving remake of Clouzot’s 1953 road thriller The Wages of Fear has justly gained in stature. A bigger, more brutish beast than its source film, its brawny beauty emerged in full with a recent digital restoration. Cruising (1980; on iTunes) has also enjoyed a comeback. It was scathingly received on release, when it was denigrated as perverted in some quarters and homophobic in others. But viewed today, Friedkin’s stylish, Al Pacino-starring slasher film set against New York’s gay S&M scene is full of surprises, chief among them being its genuinely queer, subversive undertow.
Friedkin’s 80s and 90s output was erratic: oddly, flops such as the preposterous tree-nymph folk horror The Guardian (Sky Store) and the oppressively nasty erotic thriller Jade (Google Play) are easier to access than his best film of the era, the taut, streetwise Secret Service thriller To Live and Die in LA, which you have to track down on DVD.
The 21st century brought polished, impersonally macho popcorn fare like Rules of Engagement (Amazon Prime) and The Hunted (Netflix), but things got more interesting when the budget was cut for adaptations of two Tracy Letts stage plays. The grotesque, Kentucky-fried gothic of Killer Joe (streamable either on Prime or Shudder), with memorably ripe turns by Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple, got more attention, but the leaner, meaner Bug (on Amazon), with a fiercely unhinged Ashley Judd as a waitress holed up in a motel room, losing her grip on reality, is a psychodrama for quarantine times if ever there was one. Should he ever return to feature films, Friedkin could thrill us yet.
Also out this week
Hailed as a bright new talent after winning Sundance in 2011, Drake Doremus keeps making the same mild relationship drama over and over, to increasingly insipid returns. This attractively cast but vapour-thin love triangle continues the pattern.
Come As You Are
(Studio Soho, 15)
American remakes of foreign hits tend to fare better when the original wasn’t exactly a classic, as proved by this gentle, good-humoured translation of a gentle, good-humoured Belgian film about three young disabled men on a quest to lose their virginity.
Five Graves to Cairo
Billy Wilder, so deft across a range of genres, is rarely remembered for this smart, tense, wartime espionage thriller from 1943, pitting Erwin Rommel against spies within spies. Released on Blu-ray for the first time in a 4K restoration, it still crackles nicely.