Friedkin Makes the 'Connection'

William Friedkin doesn’t know how he survived the making of “The French Connection,” his 1971 police-procedural classic.

As the Oscar-winning director tells it, his appearance some 35 years later at the Harvard Film Archive’s two-week retrospective of his work can only be explained by miracle. “It was the Movie God again,” he said.

Only some sort of cinematic deity could’ve saved him, he says, from the perils of one of the movie’s most famous scenes—a heart-stopping car chase in which protagonist Jimmy Doyle (played by that year’s Best Actor Gene Hackman) rockets through Brooklyn traffic tailing a criminal who has hijacked the West End’s elevated train. Lacking the funds to block off the street or film the chase on a closed set, Friedkin had simply sat in the passenger’s seat with his camera pointed forward and taunted the driver until he tripled the speed limit.

“We went 26 blocks at 90 miles an hour with no clearances, no permissions—went in the wrong lane, went right against cross traffic, and nearly hit it. It’s something, I swear to you ladies and gentlemen,” Friedkin said, smiling, “I wouldn’t do today.”

With the same boldness of mind, Friedkin went on to direct “The Exorcist”—the horror classic that earned 10 Oscar nominations—just two years later.

If a filmmaking deity saved William Friedkin’s career, it was instinct, he suggested, that pushed it forward. Almost every choice made by Friedkin for “The French Connection” was either motivated by intuition or forced by circumstance. Hackman was only considered after a number of other actors were unavailable or turned the role down—among them, Jackie Gleason. Friedkin chose cinematographer Owen Roizman—who received an Oscar nomination for the film—without ever having seen a frame of film he had shot.

“As a filmmaker, the one thing I did pick up somehow was to trust my instincts,” he said.

These hunches pointed him toward some of the film’s most striking moments. Along with the film’s producer, Philip D’Antoni, Friedkin decided they needed a scene fit to rival the already-famous car chase from “Bullitt,” which had been released just three years before. Taking a 55 block walk along stretches of the elevated train in Brooklyn, Friedkin and D’Antoni “spitballed” the idea of a very different car chase, in which a driver pursued a man in a metro car.

When the two went to the transit authority to assess the plausibility of this dream, the Movie God stepped in yet again. Asking for permission to film a train crash in an elevated train system that in over half a century had never seen an accident, the two were gravely told by the supervisor that allowing it would lose him his job. As Friedkin and D’Antoni headed dejectedly toward the door, the man stopped them and announced that he’d do it for $40,000 and a one-way trip to Jamaica.

“He gave us permission, he got fired, and he moved to Jamaica,” Friedkin said.

The film’s stunning last scene—which ends with the ambiguous firing of an unseen gun—was arrived at in a similarly haphazard fashion. “I was sitting in the sound mix, and I said to the sound mixer, as the music was trailing off, ‘We should end this film with a bang,’” Friedkin explained with characteristic humor. “And he said, ‘So what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘We should end this film with a bang.’”

Friday’s Q & A was not all amiable storytelling. At one point, an audience member pointedly questioned Friedkin’s choice to show a Blu-Ray version of the film—which the director had personally color-dyed, frame by frame—rather than an original or dyed 35mm print.

Responding to accusations of ruining the film’s integrity by showing it in Blu-Ray, Friedkin adamantly defended his support of digital technology.

“This is exactly what I had in mind when I shot the picture,” Friedkin said emphatically. “We can’t say, ‘We shouldn’t do this because of some kind of purity.’ We’re making this always as best as it can be seen by new audiences.”

Later that night, the HFA screened Friedkin’s first major film, “The People vs. Paul Crump,” a documentary of a death-row inmate convicted of a murder he likely didn’t commit. The film prompted the governor of Illinois to send Friedkin a thank-you letter, saying the film led him to commute Crump’s sentence to life in prison instead of death by electric chair.

“But listen,” Friedkin said, introducing the film with the same humility that elicited his constant tribute to a benevolent Movie God. “It’s not that good, folks.”