After “The Exorcist,” Friedkin found himself in that rarefied, unenviable position of appearing to have the world by the tail. In his biography, he describes the moment before hubris set him up for a fall perfectly. He, Francis Ford Coppola, and Peter Bogdanovich were in a limousine toasting with champagne to their successes. All of them were Oscar winners and box office record breakers, they had everything to celebrate … and not a one of them would ever be as successful again. Friedkin could have done anything, so he decided to try Everything. The hubris was off the charts. He was going to remake one of the best films off all time (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear”) with a script by “The Wild Bunch’s” Walon Green, a score by experimental electronic act Tangerine Dream, a cast of international almosts, and it was going to be his biggest, best picture yet. He was right but nobody else knew or cared. “Sorcerer” was marketed like a spiritual sequel to “The Exorcist” (one of the trucks has a drawing of Pazuzu on its hood) and opened against “Star Wars.” It got murdered at the box office. If you’ve been following my work as a video essayist you know I covered it as one of The Unloved some 10 years ago. Time has since caught up to “Sorcerer’s” greatness but it’s unthinkable now that it was ever unpopular.
Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Amidou, and (at long last in the right place) Francisco Rabal play four refugees from the world working for an oil company in Colombia. They have no money and can’t go home thanks to checkered criminal pasts, so when the chance comes to drive explosives to clear an oil field fire they leap at the chance. “It’s risky moving one of those cases ten feet … you gotta move it 200 miles.” A perfect premise. A perfect movie. Scheider was a last-minute fill-in for Steve McQueen, who demanded his wife Ali McGraw be allowed to have a job in the film (Friedkin, ever the egotist, refused to have anyone tell him how to run his set), and he brings with him Popeye Doyle’s hat from “The French Connection,” as if to remind people of his history with Friedkin. The film is all nerve-wracking tension and sweaty, inch-thick atmosphere. The depressive vibes of the jungle, every bump and turn of the road promising death, the justifiably famous bridge sequence; “Sorcerer” still plays like gangbusters in front of an audience or alone at 2 AM on your TV. “Sorcerer” is one of the finest thrillers of the 20th century.
After “Sorcerer” turned out to be a box office disappointment, Friedkin was once again on the lookout for movies he could make without too much fuss. This, alas, was a feint. His two comedies, 1978’s charming “The Brinks Job” (which reunited John Cassavetes’ leads Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands) and his 1983’s disappointing “Deal of the Century,” were also flops, which didn’t help Friedkin rejoin the A-list.
In between was “Cruising.” “Cruising” started life the Friedkin way; he caught up with his pal Randy Jurgensen, who had worked a serial killer case in the 1970s and discovered that a man named Paul Bateson (who just so happened to be an extra in “The Exorcist”) was the likeliest culprit. Friedkin visited Bateson in jail and got a first-hand account. Bateson claimed he was so high during that period of his life that he didn’t remember doing half the things he was accused of but it was as likely as not he was guilty. Friedkin turned his and Jurgensen’s accounts into “Cruising,” starring Al Pacino as a rookie detective who goes undercover in New York’s leather bar scene to find a killer. The film was picketed during production as it was made clear that Friedkin hadn’t sought any input from the gay community in New York before embarking on the project and people were worried he was harmfully othering them to the mainstream (not that conservative America needed any help from a director as polarizing as Friedkin). Pacino, for his part, was deeply upset when he saw the final project and discovered reasonable doubt as to whether his character had been the killer all along. It’s a grubby, grim film, pure Friedkin in its ambiguity and excitement at transgression, the kind of thing people barely attempt let alone achieve these days without it becoming a tired pose. There are a million great pieces about the movie (maybe its crowning achievement is that it inspired so much scholarship and activism), even if watching it can be a perplexing and disturbing experience.