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Nobody did car chases like the late William Friedkin

Rest in peace to the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, one of the best ever do it

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Gene Hackman grits his teeth while driving fast in The French Connection Image: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection
Pete Volk (he/they) is Polygon’s curation editor for movies and TV, with a particular love for action and martial arts movies.

Legendary director William Friedkin died Monday, leaving an accomplished legacy behind as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. Friedkin’s career veered through a variety of genres, and there may be no better three-film run for a director than his 1971 through 1977 stretch of The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer. His final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial starring Kiefer Sutherland, will premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in September. Friedking was 87.

In addition to his terrific body of work, Friedkin was famously catty, even with other filmmakers, and had a larger-than-life personality and energy that was fully imbued into his singular work. For me, though, one of the greatest impacts Friedkin had was on the car chase.

Peter Yates’ Bullitt starring Steve McQueen is often credited with inventing the modern Hollywood car chase in 1968, but Friedkin reinvented it a few years later in The French Connection, one of the greatest crime thrillers ever made.

In the movie’s legendary chase scene, Gene Hackman’s asshole cop Popeye Doyle steals a civilian’s car and goes racing frantically through the New York streets, chasing a hitman on the train tracks above. Turns out it really was just as dangerous a stunt as it looks on screen. The scene was shot illegally without securing proper permits, and Friedkin said he bribed a New York transit authority employee to make it happen.

Director of photography Owen Roizman has said in order to increase the feeling that the car really was going extremely fast they lowered the frame rate to 18 frames per second for the chase. And it really works: The driving feels much rougher and faster than you’d see in many modern chases — Doyle slides around as the brakes scream, colliding with the curb and other cars (some of these collisions were accidents they kept in the final film) — which adds a sense of urgency, desperation, and gritty realism to the chase. The evocative (and now iconic) choice to mount a camera on the front bumper further immerses viewers in the high-speed chase.

Nearly 20 years later, Friedkin raised the bar again in To Live and Die in L.A. This time, the scene chase starts with a beautiful tracking shot to set up the scene, eventually leading to a mind-boggling sequence with two cards careening down the wrong side of a freeway. Friedkin apparently came up with the idea after waking up while driving on the wrong side of the highway on his way home from a wedding. Capturing his vision took six whole weeks to shoot.

The front bumper camera returns, once again heightening the tension of near-collisions and the sheer speed these cars are traveling at. This time, Friedkin adds a camera hanging off the side of the passenger side rear window. Star William Peterson did most of the driving, further adding to the immersion of the sequence.

They’re both terrific car chases that clearly come from the same visionary but have their own unique spin on vehicular action. Friedkin will be missed, but his legacy will live on.

The French Connection is available to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, and Vudu. To Live and Die in L.A. is unfortunately not available to stream legally, but you can rent Sorcerer or The Exorcist on Amazon and Apple TV to get your Friedkin fix instead.

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