Friedkin was always all about landing the haymakers, a habit he likely learned when he began working for a local Chicago TV station as a teen. Amid his acres of lost functionary work from this period arises THE PEOPLE VERSUS PAUL CRUMP (1962), an hour-long forgotten documentary that, in most senses, has never been truly known. Made when the budding filmmaker was merely 20 but never aired, Crump is a mad, agit-prop fever spike — a primo example of what one salient critic called “vulgar modernism.” Crude, rude, and bursting with ’tude, the film is a kind of vérité-era anticipation of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line — both in its focus on an unjustly convicted death’s-row convict and in its brazen chop-shop approach to the precepts of documentary filmmaking. Friedkin follows reporter John Justin Smith into the Cook County Jail to interview Crump, a Chicago black man set up by his cohort for a stockyards-robbery murder he didn’t commit. (Friedkin re-enacts the crime in a rough-and-tumble, Phil Karlson style.) The movie is so fictionalized — starting with the re-enactments and continuing through Smith’s rehearsed proto-noir interrogation — that it constitutes more of a furious prison ballad than a true work of non-fiction. (The opening shot, of Crump standing at his bars as another convict blows on a harmonica in the foreground, is a crucial, Fuller-style melodramatic-cliché tipoff.) No small degree of pre-Kiarostamian frisson is mustered by the presence of Crump’s mother playing herself in flashbacks trying to dissuade the Daley I–era Chicago fuzz from apprehending her son, who’s portrayed by an actor. Economical yet flamboyantly righteous, Friedkin’s hot potato played at least a small part in keeping Crump out of the chair.
From there, he took assignments befitting a TV-studio pro — from the Sonny-and-Cher farce Good Times (1967) and an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (1968) to the canned queen theater of THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970). But then with two hungry hands he grabbed onto The French Connection, a routine, medium-budget, true-crime policier that he, Gene Hackman, and cinematographer Owen Roizman transformed into a definitive, era-marking manifestation of post-Eisenhower New York grunge and amoral modernity. There’s no underestimating its escalation of the New Wave mythos — that is, taking the precedents of Bullitt, Midnight Cowboy, and Five Easy Pieces and applying them to the mechanistic needs and pressures of hyperreal narcotics work, stuff shot over the shoulder in a grim Gotham winter with such veracity that it became the way we saw the contemporary city, and ourselves. It was the first American film I and most Americans had seen (because we hadn’t seen John Cassavetes’s Faces or Barbara Loden’s Wanda) that felt no need to make anything pretty.
Friedkin became Friedkin in those alleys and on those subway cars; the carbon odor of emergency was unmistakable, as it was in The Exorcist, which everyone has already seen (like The Godfather an all-time chart topper based on R-rated adult viewers, not children), and which stands as a merciless machine of discomfort and taboo decimation. Forgive its implicit Catholicism (a more persuasive ad for the Vatican has yet to be made in Hollywood) and watch Friedkin at work framing and cutting the horrible action in that Arctic bedroom precisely as if it were your own very bad dream.