William Friedkin on the Power of Film, Capital Punishment and his Recklessness on ‘The French Connection’

In fine fettle, Friedkin delivers a hugely entertaining - and sometimes moving - masterclass at France’s Lumière Festival

William Friedkin
Lumiere Festival / Loic BENOIT

LYON  — Director William Friedkin, maker of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” in Lyon for a showcase of his work, proved his storytelling prowess at a master class on Thursday as he captivated the audience with anecdotes of his illustrious career.

Particularly moving was the account of his first work, the 1962 documentary “The People vs. Paul Crump.”

After meeting the chaplain of the Cook County jail and learning about a young black man on death row named Paul Crump that both the pastor and the warden believed to be innocent, Friedkin visited the inmate and likewise became convinced of his innocence. He set out to make a documentary about the case in the hope of saving his life.

“A confession was beaten out of him by the Chicago police, which was done routinely in those days. If there was an African American accused of a crime they would go into the African American community and round up the usual suspects and beat confessions out of them. That’s what happened with this man,” Friedkin said.

He added:  “I knew nothing about how to make a film but I decided with two other people to make a documentary to try to save his life. It was like a court of last resort. He had been denied by the Supreme Court of the United States by one vote and he was going to the chair when I met him.”

“It was a very powerful story,” Friedkin said, adding that it ultimately convinced the governor “that there was a shadow of a doubt,” leading him to commute Crump’s sentence.

In making the documentary, Friedkin witnessed the execution of a man in the electric chair, an image the filmmaker said remained with him “every single day.”

Describing in detail the process of the prisoner being clamped into the chair, Friedkin said he “could hear the man whimpering behind the glass.”

“The warden pressed a foot pedal that brought an electric pad over his forehead. A metallic mask came down over his face. … Then the warden gave a signal in the room to three different men in the control room. There are always three men so that no one man could be said to have been responsible for the death. The three men pushed buttons at the same time. 3,500 volts was the first pass, then 3,700 volts and then 3,200 volts. Three times they pushed these buttons. The first thing you saw was the muscles of his neck start to expand and they turned the color of these [dark red] walls. A number of the witnesses threw up while this was happening.”

Later, when he was outside, he saw “the lone figure of the mother of this man standing in the doorway of the jail waiting to claim his body. I realized there that what the state was doing was every bit as cruel – in fact it was murder. The state was murdering a man legally. This has affected me for the rest of my life, to this day I can’t believe what I saw. I photographed it in pieces to show the operation of the chair. That was my first experience with documentary.”

“I thought, what a powerful tool. It has the power to save a person’s life. Then I went to Hollywood.”

Despite the power of documentaries, Friedkin said he didn’t realize he could use a documentary techniques in film until he saw Costa-Gavra’s ‘Z.’

Speaking about “The French Connection,” he said, “There is a movie god and he gave me Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey, and many others who I was not aware of.”

“Gene Hackman wasn’t even on a list to play that part. The first person we had in mind was Peter Boyle.”

Boyle, however, had played a vile racist bully in the 1970 film “Joe” and told Friedkin that he just wanted to make romantic comedies for the rest of his career.

“Peter looked in the mirror and saw Cary Grant; Mel Brooks looked at him and saw Young Frankenstein,” Friedkin quipped.

As for Hackman, Friedkin said when he first met him he thought “he was one of the dullest guys I’d ever met. I said to my producer, there’s no way this guy can play Popeye in ‘The French Connection.’ We fought almost every day on the set. But he was the last man standing.”

The choice of Spanish actor Fernando Rey for the film’s heavy was a stroke of luck that stemmed from a mistake, Friedkin said, noting that he told his casting director that he wanted “the guy from [Luis Buñuel’s] ‘Belle de Jour.’” Rather than casting Spanish actor Francisco Rabal, his casting director hired fellow Spaniard Fernando Rey, who, despite looking more “like the king of Spain” than a Corsican gangster, ended up with the part.

Discussing the film’s harrowing chase scene through the streets of New York, Friedkin admitted that he had been reckless.

While the production received permission from the New York Transit Authority to shoot on an elevated train, it had no permission to film the car chase on the streets “in actual big city traffic,” as Friedkin had planned.

Following the success of Steve McQueen’s 1968 crime thriller “Bullitt,” Friedkin hoped to top that film’s car chase through empty San Francisco streets by plowing his car through more congested traffic and pedestrian-lined sidewalks.

“We drove a car that was mounted with three cameras for 26 blocks at 90 miles an hour with no controls whatsoever, no police controls and right through red lights – 90 miles an hour for 26 blocks!”

He went on: “The crashes that occurred in the chase were never supposed to occur. They are actual crashes into Gene Hackman’s car. Human life was in danger, my life was in danger, everybody who’s in that sequence – we could’ve killed somebody. By the grace of God no one was hurt. I would never do something like that ever again.”