The line between a great film and a failure can be only a few details — music, casting, even the title. Thomas D. Clagett’s exhaustive and perceptive “William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality” shows this precept clearly, providing a behind-the-scenes look at Friedkin’s works, highlighted by a section on the changes made to “The Exorcist” at the behest of writer William Peter Blatty, that amount to an advanced seminar in filmmaking. More than that, it’s a fun read.
For “The French Connection,” Friedkin — realizing that star Gene Hackman disliked his character, Popeye, and wanted to humanize him — goaded him into nastiness. (Friedkin: “This man is a pig. He’s as rotten as the criminals he’s chasing.”)
Friedkin’s insistence on minimalist dialogue serves his purpose of achieving realism, and is one of the hallmarks of his films. The director went to great lengths to do this in “The Exorcist” to make it distinct from a typical teen-targeted horror pic. In fact, he never even saw it as a horror picture. He used no piercing music and went for the disturbing notes of “Tubular Bells,” not anything more manipulative.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the last chapter, which discusses the merits of new material added for the reissue of “The Exorcist.” Blatty was concerned about the clarity of exposition and the theme, while Friedkin thought the silver-lining ending was clear enough. Clagett thinks the original was better.
Friedkin’s other movies didn’t achieve the distinction of those two films, yet the chapters are equally illuminating and full of details large and (seemingly) small.
You won’t find any harsh criticism here, but most readers won’t mind. The helmer concluded in retrospect that “Sorcerer” had two (at least) fatal flaws: a title that led people to expect another “Exorcist” with dazzling effects, and the casting of a character actor, Roy Scheider, as the lead.