His new movie, “Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on ‘The Exorcist’” is also a simple proposition. As in the 2017 documentary “Friedkin Uncut,” directed by Francesco Zippel, the fulcrum of the piece is the presence of Friedkin himself. While Zippel incorporated outtakes of Friedkin waxing both dyspeptic and comedic to give a sense of the filmmaker’s still somewhat turbulent personality (here’s where Federal law requires that I point out that somebody in the 1970s nicknamed him “Hurricane Billy,” which I reckon had to be the kindest way to describe his volatility), Phillippe depicts Friedkin in a way that mostly respects the fourth wall—there’s a moment when he allows footage of Friedkin addressing his director/interviewer directly, and when you see it you’ll understand why he let it stand—and gives the director seemingly free rein to describe all the ideas and art that informed the movie.
If you’ve read the great director’s memoir or seen him introducing his films at rep houses, you know that Friedkin, now 85, is operating in a kind of avuncular mode. An autodidact raised in poverty in Chicago, he is remarkably erudite in conversation, or “conversation,” and from the very beginning the correspondences he makes between the formation of his own aesthetic and the way “fate” conspired to lead him to direct “The Exorcist” are dazzling. After giving a sketch of his early life and how he was seduced by cinema (of course “Citizen Kane” features here), he speaks of film that shows true religious feeling, and brings up Carl Dreyer’s 1955 “Ordet,” a drama of faith redeemed, in a rather startling way. He then walks us through “Kane,” and what he believes is its New-Testament-derived message, “What should it profit a man if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” It’s thrilling when Friedkin’s words and Phillippe’s adroitly placed film clips walk us through movie endings in the tradition of “Kane”: Kubrick’s “The Killing,” Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and Friedkin’s own “Sorcerer.”
Meticulously but also expansively, Friedkin goes through every aspect of the movie’s development and creation. His relationship with “Exorcist” author William Peter Blatty is fascinating. Blatty based the tortured Father Karras on himself, and according to Friedkin offered the director his own profit points on the film if Friedkin would allow Blatty to play the role. Friedkin discusses how a screen test by Jason Miller, then an acclaimed playwright but a complete nonentity in movie acting, convinced him to throw over the name actor who’d already been signed to play the role. Friedkin’s philosophy on film music, his approach to editing—“subliminal” cuts that are central to the movie’s shock effects and its thematic resonance—his shooting methods and the way great painting influences his approach to light; all this stuff is incredibly engaging, and buttressed perfectly by Phillippe’s use of material from the film itself.
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