Though a pivotal figure in the wave of American filmmaking dubbed “New Hollywood”, even forming the short-loved Director’s Company production house along with fellow key New Hollywood directors Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich [i], William Friedkin has nevertheless labeled himself an outsider. Speaking in Friedkin Uncut (2018), Francesco Zippel’s career spanning documentary dedicated to his work, Friedkin contrasted himself with the so called “movie brat” directors of the same generation associated with New Hollywood whose major names alongside Coppola and Bogdanovich include the likes of (though none mentioned by name by Friedkin) John Milius, Brian De Palma, and Paul Schrader. “The film directors of my generation were for the most part, with the exception of myself, were film student geeks” said Friedkin. “They all went to film schools and I never went to a film school, so I never became part of that film school generation.” Rather than receiving a “formal” film school education as most of his contemporaries had done, Friedkin’s path to the directing profession began in the world of television, first working in the mail room at Chicago’s WGN-TV out of high school. Described by Friedkin as “the first small step of what was to become a marathon”(1), Friedkin’s shifts in the mail room would end by be allowed to watch a TV control room in full operation, Friedkin keeping notes of each command given by a director. Following a year in the mail room, Friedkin was promoted to a floor manager position (1). Though a trial by fire initially, Friedkin soon became one of the top managers at the station working on up to “eight shows a day”(1), finding himself behind the camera directing live television a little under a year later (1).
A chance encounter with a death row priest at a cocktail party ended with Friedkin’s learning of the case of Paul Crump, an inmate convicted of murder awaiting the electric chair whom the priest believed to have been wrongly convicted (1). Though originally shot for Chicago’s Channel 7, the controversy surrounding Crump’s case and claims of torture while in police custody caused The People vs. Paul Crump (1962), Friedkin’s debut documentary work, to be withdrawn from the channel’s schedule (2). Friedkin however, in an early instance of the bold personality type which earned him the nickname “Hurricane Billy”, saw to it that then governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner Jr., saw the film (2), Kerner overturning Crump’s death sentence to 199 years upon seeing the film (2). The People vs. Paul Crump also proved convincing to hiring producers, former actor Norman Lloyd, executive producer for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1955-1965), formally Alfred Hitchcock Presets, being one. Upon seeing The People vs. Paul Crump, Lloyd reportedly told Friedkin’s agent “There’s more suspense in the first five minutes of the Paul Crump documentary than there was in anything The Hitchcock Hour produced last season”(1). A meeting with Lloyd and Psycho (1960) star John Gavin, who had director approval for the episode he was to star in (1), resulted in Friedkin directing the final episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “Off Season”. Though he had no hand in the scripting of “Off Season”, Friedkin’s directing the episode proved prophetic, it being the first “thin line between the police and criminals”(3) narrative that would define future Friedkin features like The French Connection (1971) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). In some ways “Off Season” might even been seen as Friedkin already putting a variation on the theme of police violence previously touched on in The People vs. Paul Crump.
Starring Gavin as officer Johnny Kendall, “Off Season” opens with Kendall shooting an unarmed homeless man to death following a liquor store break-in, Kendall claiming he was certain the man was reaching for a weapon. Given an honorable discharge from the force, Johnny and his fiancée Sandy take up residence in a motel in smaller country town, the visual parallels with Psycho uncanny with both the setting and Gavin’s presence, where Johnny finds work as a deputy sheriff. Tasked with keeping watch over lakeside cottages owned by a wealthy clientele during the off season, the job requires no gun as the sheriff forbids Johnny to carry one, preferring to keep the town as peaceful as possible. Being a precursor to future Friedkin characters consumed or “possessed” by the inherent good/evil dichotomy however, Johnny quickly feels the urge to carry a revolver, his paranoia aggravated by the repeated taunts of ex-deputy Milt Woodman who was fired for breaking into one of the cottages for romantic late night dalliances, as well as growing fears of Sandy having an affair, possibly with Woodman. “Off Season” is also notable for being as ambiguous as many subsequent Friedkin works would become known for. Particularly on the subject of just how “accidental” Johnny’s shooting of the homeless man was, Gavin brilliantly revealing Johnny’s “killer” instincts more-and-more throughout the episode as Johnny eventually even brings his hair-trigger personality home with him, becoming more suspicious and uncomfortably tense with Sandy. “Off Season” concludes with surprising reveal, though similar to Cruising (1980) fifteen years later true “resolutions” are elusive, portions of the climax and Johnny’s actions remaining cryptic.
“Off Season” was a a major opportunity for Friedkin both professionally and personally as well, Friedkin considering himself a student of Hitchcock’s films. Writing in his memoir The Friedkin Connection, Friedkin stated emphatically “If you want to study film or actually make films, you don’t need to go to film school; you just need to watch Hitchcock’s movies. The entire vocabulary of cinema is embodied in his work.”(1) Though like his first days as floor manager, Friedkin’s first few days of shooting his first work on a sound stage were trying as the preferred method of shooting 60’s TV drama was simple and quick one take shots. Friedkin however set up several time consuming and complex shots requiring multiple takes, an irony given his later career reputation of being a one-take director, causing what Friedkin described as a “phalanx of Black Suits”(1) to descend upon the studio. It was ultimately Hitchcock who decided final cut on all episodes, “Off Season” getting Hitchcock’s approval with zero changes where he was known to “suggest numerous revisions”(1). Friedkin however does wish Hitchcock had changed “Off Season”, calling his own work “terrible, lacking style and reeking of compromise”(1). Hitchcock was not so approving of Friedkin’s choice of wardrobe when he arrived to shoot the opening and closing segments of the show, telling Friedkin, donning a t-shirt and khakis, “Mr. Friedkin, usually our directors wear ties”(1). Years later at the Directors Guild Awards after accepting an award for The French Connection, Friedkin, then wearing a tuxedo complete with bow tie, walked up to a table where Hitchcock was seated and asked “How do you like the tie, Hitch?”(4), the reference by then lost on Hitchcock [ii].
After directing the heavily giallo-inspired music video for Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” in 1984 Friedkin had “no offers and nothing I particularly wanted to do”(1). A surprise script in the mail with a note from producer Phil DeGuere reading “You probably would never consider going back to TV”(1) ironically found Friedkin not only returning to television but horror as well for the first time since The Exorcist (1973) for the re-vamped Twilight Zone (1985-1989) series. Described by Friedkin as a “metaphor for the way Vietnam continues to haunt the American conscience”(1), the episode, entitled “Nightcrawlers”, was written by DeGuere himself, an adaptation of a story from southern horror writer Robert McCammon. Playing out entirely from the inside of a small diner during a treacherous thunderstorm, “Nightcrawlers” opens with state trooper Dennis Welles describing the details of a massacre at nearby motel to diner owner Bob and an unnamed waitress, played by Exene Cervenka of X, claiming “it looked like a war was going on.” A traveling family enters the diner, soon followed by the mysterious, recklessly speeding “Price” (Scott Paulin), his entrance and demeanor immediately casting suspicion upon him from Dennis. Price reveals himself to be a Vietnam veteran, formally in a special ops unit known as a “Nightcrawlers”. Though adamant about not wanting to discuss the war, Dennis’ incessant interrogations further disturb Price’s war-torn psyche, Price breaking down the night in the jungle which saved his life though his fellow Nightcrawlers were gunned down, the shame, along with other residual effects from the war, literally bringing the war home with him.
Accomplishing more in twenty minutes than many films with feature length run times, DeGuere’s reasons for sending his script to Friedkin become obvious fairly quickly. Similar to “Off Season”, “Nightcrawlers” feels specifically tailored for Friedkin with both Price and Dennis being archetypal Friedkin lead characters. Price of course being the tormented individual consumed or “possessed” by his guilt and internal terrors of the past while Dennis, or “Mr. Trooper” as Price sarcastically refers to him throughout the episode, serves as the archetypal Friedkin law enforcement official. While not as outright trigger-happy as Johnny in “Off Season”, Dennis is nevertheless gung-ho and jingoistic upon learning of Price’s service, making bold claims of wanting to go himself and wishing the US had stayed the course in ‘Nam. Dennis does however share some of Johnny’s more situation-escalating characteristics, being the catalyst for the climax of the episode after failing to listen to Price’s warnings. Much like Johnny in “Off Season” being a predecessor to future Friedkin characters like both Dennis and Price, Price can in many ways be seen as a forerunner to Peter, the paranoid ex-serviceman portrayed by Michael Shannon in Bug (2006). Like Peter, Price also tells of possibly being the victim of a military experiment with himself and other soldiers having a form of telekinesis with the ability to physically produce their thoughts. However, where Bug leaves certain aspects of Peter’s delusions in a gray area, Price’s physical manifestations of his thoughts are very real and very visible to the rest of the diner as the episode moves “effortlessly from the real to the surreal”(1) as Friedkin wrote. Beginning almost subtlety with the brief image of a can of beer replacing a cup of coffee, Friedkin is much less so turning the diner a literal war zone as the Nightcrawlers descend for the episode’s explosive finale.
“Nightcrawlers” originally aired on October 18, 1985 as the final segment of episode four, season one of the new Twilight Zone. The violence of the “Nightcrawlers” finale proved a shock to many viewers watching during the 8PM time slot. The series had previously been scheduled to air at 10PM with episodes such as “Nightcrawlers” written with a more adult audience in mind (5), producer/writer DeGuere ironically pointing to “Nightcrawlers” for the eventual decline in ratings during the time slot after an initial strong showing. Nonetheless, “Nightcrawlers” was a success for Friedkin with the episode considered by many the pinnacle of the 80’s Twilight Zone revival, revered genre director Joe Dante included, Dante referring to “Nightcrawlers” on his Movies That Made Me Podcast as an “amazing piece of television”(6). Shot over the course of five days on a soundstage rendered to resemble a roadside diner, Friedkin described the “Nightcrawlers” shoot as “exhilarating”(1) with all involved believing strongly in the story. Friedkin was particularly inspired, as he wrote, to “explore the landscape wherein reality and illusion coexist.”(1)[iii] The response to “Nightcrawlers” gave Friedkin the confidence to “make another film that might draw on everything I had done before it and take it further”(1). The resulting film from Friedkin’s resorted sense of confidence of course being To Live and Die in L.A., though Friedkin returned to television once again for a series a two made-for-TV action features, C.A.T. Squad (1986) and its sequel C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf (1988). While many of Friedkin’s feature films not titled “The Exorcist”have, if not a flirtatious relationship with horror than certainly appeal to horror fans, be it Cruising, Rampage (1987) or Bug, Friedkin returned to the genre explicitly at the dawn of the 90’s with The Guardian (1990) and stayed within the genre for his return to the anthology television format.
The violence of “Nightcrawlers” may have come as a shock to CBS viewers watching in 1985, however viewers of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996) had come to not only expect violence but various other uncut allowances the premium cable channel afforded which had essentially become a series’ trademark. All of which Friedkin certainly indulges in during his contribution to the fourth season of Tales from the Crypt, “On a Dead Man’s Chest”. Very loosely based on a story from issue number 12 of EC Comic’s The Haunt of Fear, the introductory segment features the iconic Cryptkeeper decked out in Elvis garb, giving his typically ghoulish puns a musical spin (“Can’t carry a tomb?”) as he introduces the “terror tune” or “decomposition” concerning “a young headbanger who lets a woman get a little too far under his skin”. “On a Dead Man’s Chest” begins with LA rock band, appropriately named Exorcist, imploding on stage when frontman Danny Darwin insults Scarlett (Tia Carrere), the new bride of guitarist Nick Bosch in front of a live crowd. Constantly at each other’s throats, the irritable Danny accuses Scarlett of wanting to break up the band. Encouraging Danny against Scarlett is Vendetta (Sherrie Rose)[iv], Danny’s favorite groupie who also displays a snake tattoo which literally jumps out at Danny. Wanting a tattoo of such quality for himself, Vendetta books Danny an exclusive appointment with the mysterious Farouche (rapper Heavy D) who informs Danny his tattoo will not be of his choosing, as “Farouche finds what’s inside and brings it outside… Your skin’s got a story to tell. I’ll find it.” After enduring Farouche’s painful traditional tattooing process, Danny is horrified to find a portrait of Scarlett accompanying the new dragon on his chest. When attempting to have the tattoo proves futile, Danny becomes ever more desperate and determined to rid himself of Scarlett.
When compared with “Off Season” and “Nightcrawlers”, both of which were quite serious in their portrayals of the central characters’ neuroses while simultaneously tackling heavy subject matter like police violence and veteran PTSD, “On a Dead Man’s Chest” sticks out much like the chest tattoo at the heart of the story. Not so much in terms of ideas as Danny is certainly carrying his own obsession with him everywhere, though Friedkin handles the subject much more bluntly with the literal “under the skin” metaphor brought to the fore with the tattoo device. Over-the-top with a nasty attitude, Friedkin directs the episode with the same rude and crude temperament displayed by the characters, reveling in the outlandish story and profane dialogue hurled back and forth between the cast. In keeping with Tales from the Crypt tradition, the episode is ultimately a morbid morality play, though the formula is turned on its side somewhat. Typically characters in Tales from the Crypt episodes were met with a twist at the very end of the episode, receiving some form of deadly recompense for their scheming behavior. “On a Dead Man’s Chest” is unique with Danny’s comeuppance, or at least a layer of it, that being the tattoo, happening mid-episode, the episode then becoming more-and-more delirious and ill-tempered as Danny. Nasty as the episodes disposition is, Friedkin surprisingly reserves the violence for the final seven minutes of the episode, the first instance of which is rather visceral and brutal. The two final, major gore set pieces of the episode however, while still grotesque, are much more fantastical. Namely Danny’s dragon bursting from his chest prior to his carving Scarlett’s portrait from his chest with a shard of broken mirror. The Cryptkeeper, now an honorary Sgt. Pepper-era Beatle, bookends the proceedings with more musical puns, cackling “Nick might have been the groups guitarist but Danny turned out to be the real ax man.”
Friedkin continued to find steady work in television throughout the 90’s, first directing a made-for-TV film for the Showtime series Rebel Highway, a 90’s resurrection of AIP (American International Pictures) which saw Friedkin along with other directors such as the aforementioned Milius and Dante as well as John McNaughton and Ralph Bakshi amongst others helming new films with classic exploitation titles. Airing in September of 1994, Friedkin followed up, Jailbreakers (1994), his entry in the Rebel Highway series starring Shannen Doherty and Antonio Sabato Jr. with an adaptation of 12 Angry Men (1997). Distributed again via Showtime, Friedkin’s 12 Angry Men featured an ensemble cast which included the likes of George C. Scott, Jack Lemon, a pre-Sopranos (1999-2007) James Gandolfini as well as a reunion between Friedkin and To Live and Die in L.A. star William Peterson. Friedkin and Peterson would later reunite for two episodes of the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015) series, “Cockroaches”, the ninth episode of season 8 in 2007 and “Mascara”, season nine, episode 18 in 2009. Friedkin admitted in 2019 that he would have been perfectly happy to remain in Chicago working in TV saying “I had no ambition to become a filmmaker. I loved live television… I would have stayed in live TV… It was such an exciting medium… Sometimes the set fell over or whatever, it was a high wire act. (6) As Friedkin has told many times, a chance encounter with Citizen Kane (1941) forever altered his ambitions and feelings about film. However, Friedkin’s various television works are more than brief detours, being highlights for their respective series while sharing enough DNA with Friedkin’s feature genre films to be included in the conversation.
[i]. The Director’s Company only produced three films, Bogdonavich’s Paper Moon (1973) and Daisy Miller (1974) and Coppala’s The Conversation (1974).
[ii]. Perhaps Friedkin’s tie quip provided an inadvertent influence on Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock’s penultimate feature centered on a “necktie killer”.
[iii]. Curiously, in the Friedkin Uncut documentary Friedkin laments somewhat his never making a feature film that, in his words “transcends reality”, Friedkin using the films of longtime friend Dario Argento as examples of reality transcending films.
[iv]. Rose is also the masked star of “Only Skin Deep”, the second episode of the sixth Tales from the Crypt season which aired on Halloween night 1994.
1. Friedkin, William. “The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir”. Harper. April 16, 2013.
2. “The forgotten case of Paul Crump”. https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/ct-xpm-2010-06-20-ct-oped-0620-crump-20100620-story.html. June 20, 2010.
3. “William Friedkin on the Thin Line Between Police and Criminals”. https://freshairarchive.org/segments/william-friedkin-thin-line-between-police-and-criminals. May 18, 1988.
4. “William Friedkin (I)”. https://www.theguardian.com/film/1998/oct/22/features. October 22, 1998.
5. Brennert, Alan. Greenburg, Martin H. “New Stories from The Twilight Zone”. Avon Books. December 1, 1991.
6. “William Friedkin” – The Movies That Made Me Podcast”. https://trailersfromhell.com/podcast/william-friedkin/.