“‘The chase’ is the purest form of cinema,” William Friedkin writes in his memoir The Friedkin Connection, “something that can’t be done in any other medium, not in literature nor on a painter’s canvas.” Nobody films a chase scene quite like Friedkin — wild, potentially dangerous sequences that put the viewer right into the heart of the action. We’re not bystanders when watching a Friedkin chase; not removed, at a safe distance, looking on from an overpass or a sidewalk. We’re right there, in the thick of it, clutching onto the dashboard in the passenger seat as the filmmaker takes us on a trip through hell.
In 1968, Peter Yates’ Bullitt contained what, at that time, was the ultimate in car chase scenes, with Steve McQueen burning rubber through the streets of San Francisco. It remained the gold standard, an influential piece of action cinema that was thought to be impossible. When Friedkin set about making The French Connection (released in 1971), one of the pre-production thoughts involved besting Bullitt’s chase.
In the scene, Gene Hackman’s Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle chases after a hitman who’s boarded an elevated train. As the killer shoots his way through the train car overhead, Popeye speeds beneath the L, narrowly avoiding cars and pedestrians in his path. “It helps to have innocent bystanders who could be ‘hurt’ or ‘killed’,” Friedkin says in his book. “When I see vehicles in a film whipping through deserted streets or country roads, I don’t feel a sense of danger.” In retrospect, Friedkin would admit that the way the chase in The French Connection was filmed was “dangerous”, with the director egging driver Bill Hickman on to go faster and faster down streets that weren’t properly blocked-off in advance. But that danger is what’s key to making The French Connection chase so exciting: it feels out-of-control.
“I did not have a great moral compass [when I was younger],” the filmmaker said in regards to staging difficult, potentially dangerous chase sequences.”I wouldn’t do it today. I wouldn’t endanger anyone’s life for a movie. Back then, I would and did.”
In his films that followed The French Connection, Friedkin would keep the chase going. A sense of pursuit is prevalent in most of the filmmakers work; stories of men chasing something dangerous; driven to push themselves over the edge in whatever quest they’re on.
In Friedkin’s underrated 1977 thriller Sorcerer, a group of men in hiding in the Dominican Republic agree to take on a suicide mission to transport some highly unstable nitroglycerin in two trucks. In a sense, Sorcerer is one sustained, feature-length chase scene, with the group of exiled men on the run from their pasts, and themselves. They may not have a hardened lawman like Popeye Doyle on their tale, but they’re running all the same. And in some cases, crawling. Sorcerer’s driving sequences aren’t dependant on speed as those in The French Connection. Speed is the enemy here — if the trucks pick up the pace over the bumpy terrain, the nitro housed within will explode. “Pace doesn’t imply speed,” Friedkin would later say. “Sometimes the action should slow to a crawl, or even a dead stop. Build and stop, build and stop, leading to an explosive climax.” In one of the film’s most harrowing sequences, one of the trucks must travel across a ricky rope bridge in the midst of a storm.
Like French Connection, it’s the realism — the downright practicality of the scene — that heightens the excitement. “There’s no opticals at all,” Friedkin said in an interview with The Dissolve. “They just weren’t available to do anything like that. And certainly nothing computer-generated. Today, it would be computer-generated, and it wouldn’t be life-threatening.”
1985’s To Live and Die In L.A., recently released on Blu-ray by both Shout! Factory and Arrow Video, is another Friedkin film about men on the hunt, in this case two Secret Service agents bending the law in order to nab a murderous counterfeiter played by Willem Dafoe. Like The French Connection, To Live and Die In L.A. has a show-stopping chase sequence. Friedkin didn’t set out to to top his previous film’s chase sequence; he merely wanted something “different.”
Shooting on weekends when traffic was lower, Friedkin once again puts the viewer uncomfortably close to the action, and inverts The French Connection chase: here, it’s the “good guys” who are being chased by the bad, trying to outrun not just cars but strategically placed snipers along the way. “I decided midway that the two guys weren’t being just chased by two agents in one car–rather, by agents all over the place,” the filmmaker said. “I wanted this to be Kafkaesque…they thought they were being chased from everywhere, and they were.” Not only does the car at the center of the scene swerve down alley ways and through aqueducts, it ends up going the wrong way up a freeway.
Nothing here looks staged. The cars speeding head-on towards the camera looks seconds away from a total collision. “Someone could really get hurt here,” you might find yourself thinking. But of course, the scene is staged. “The first thing you have to do is see it in your mind’s eye,” Friedkin says. “You have to envision it. Imagine someone knitting a sweater or a scarf. They either have a pattern in front of them, or they see a pattern in their mind’s eye. Then it’s one stitch at a time. That’s what shooting a chase is like.”
Friedkin’s 1995 erotic thriller Jade isn’t held in the highest regard when it comes to the filmmaker’s oeuvre, but Friedkin claims it was “the best experience” he ever had making a film. And it contains what he considers to be the best chase scene he ever filmed — even better than The French Connection.
Once again, Friedkin plays around with pacing. The chase starts off fast and furious, but finds itself stalled and crawling through a parade in Chinatown. Friedkin has fun with San Francisco’s hilly roadways, engaging in some rather over-the-top jumps for his vehicles.
Like Sorcerer, Friedkin’s 2003 The Hunted is a feature-length chase. Like the other films mentioned here, it’s the story of determined, dangerous men hunting something, or someone. Men who are driven by their anxieties and histories. They do what they do because they don’t know how to do anything else.
Most of the chasing in The Hunted is done on foot, venturing into deep woodlands for sequences of brutal hand-to-hand combat. But Friedkin still managed to work one good car chase into the narrative. It’s also perhaps the silliest of the bunch: starting first with Benicio del Toro jumping out of a window and stealing a car, followed then by Tommy Lee Jones chasing after the car on foot, resulting in del Toro flipping him the bird as he runs alongside the car.
It’s not the most stunning chase of Friedkin’s career, but it does still bear his trademark embrace of reckless abandonment. When del Toro ends up in gridlock, he simply shifts gears and plows the car forward, smashing and pushing other vehicles out of his way.
“The chase must be a metaphor for the lead character,” Friedkin says in The Friedkin Connection. “Reckless, brutal, obsessive or possibly even cautious.” Through his unique, intense filmography, the director has crafted a series of driven, obsessive stories peppered with the thrill of the hunt. “There’s a kind of desperation to the characters I’m interested in,” the director once said. “They’re all in extremely heightened states in a heightened situation.” The chase sequence is inherently cinematic, but outside of a depressingly small number of films, they’re no longer handled with the same realistic intensity as they were in Friedkin’s hands. The wildly successful Fast & the Furious franchise relies heavily on CGI trickery to pull off the bulk of its action. The modern age of filmmaking has left the practical Friedkin-esque chase sequence in the dust. We’ll have to be content with what once was.