I am on the board of the LA Opera, and the President and CEO, Christopher Koelsch, notified us of the quite extensive opera background of Friedkin’s that I was not aware of. “Billy had a profound impact on the LAO community with his extraordinarily insightful and extremely popular productions of Bluebeard’s Castle/Gianni Schicchi (2002), Ariadne auf Naxos (2004) and Il Tabarro/Suor Angelica (2008),” he wrote. “He also won acclaim for productions around the world, including Wozzeck, The Makropoulos Case and Rigoletto in Florence, Salome in Munich, and Aida in Turin.”
Billy’s talents extended far and wide, even saving someone from death row. Interestingly, he told Donald Liebenson, one of our Contributors at Rogerebert.com, that when he made his first film, 1962’s “The People vs. Paul Crump,” “I had the hope, but not the certainty, that it would help Crump in some way and that it would in some way be the beginning of an education for me in how to make a film.” But his actions led to Paul Crump being taken off of death row.
Roger saw the potential in Friedkin’s work early on, praising his 1968 film, “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” writing, “It avoids the phony glamour and romanticism that the movies usually use to smother burlesque (as in ‘Gypsy’) and it really seems to understand this most-American art form.” Roger also favored Friedkin’s 1969 adaptation of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party,” claiming that “it’s impossible to imagine a better film of Pinter’s play than this sensitive, disturbing version.”
Yet it was in 1971’s “The French Connection” where Friedkin’s genius was on full display, particularly in its landmark car chase sequence. “In Friedkin’s chase, the cop has to weave through city traffic at 70 m.p.h. to keep up with a train that has a clear track: The odds are off-balance,” marveled Roger in his four-star review. “And when the train’s motorman dies and the train is without a driver, the chase gets even spookier: A man is matched against a machine that cannot understand risk or fear. This makes the chase psychologically more scary, in addition to everything it has going for it visually.” The film went on to win five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.