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William Friedkin is the famed director of The Exorcist and The French Connection. His latest film is Killer Joe, an adaptation of a Tracy Letts play starring Matthew McConaughey; it's due out July 27.
For Morning Edition's occasional series Watch This, Friedkin spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep about three Hollywood classics from the '40s and '50s, none of which would be at risk of the NC-17 rating that Killer Joe picked up for its violent content.
Stylistic differences aside, it's these films that inspired Friedkin's own filmmaking. "I learned from every one of these films that I continue to watch," Friedkin says.
Friedkin's first recommendation is, as he says, not what you might expect from the director of The Exorcist. Singin' in the Rain is the classic '50s musical whose title song is now a cultural touchstone — but a tense horror film it is not.
"The films that I love are not the kind of films that I make," Friedkin explains.
Singin' in the Rain's "Make Em Laugh" sequence, Friedkin says, "is the most brilliantly choreographed number I've ever seen in a film. It's very much akin to the kind of choreography you now see only at Cirque du Soleil."
That scene showcases Donald O'Connor, but the film stars and was co-choreographed and co-directed by Gene Kelly, whose personality, Friedkin says, "inspires every frame of that magnificent film."
Friedkin's second pick is another '50s musical, this time starring Fred Astaire as a fading movie star — much like Astaire himself at the time, Friedkin points out — trying to make it in a Broadway musical.
For Friedkin, a primary draw of the film is its star, whom he met once at the Hollywood Park racetrack.
"He was the kindest, most modest, self-effacing guy I can remember meeting out here [in L.A.]," Friedkin says.
"I've learned a lot about him since, what a perfectionist he was. He was as much a perfectionist as a great writer. Every step mattered to Astaire, as every word matters to a writer like Scott Fitzgerald. Every move by Astaire is poetry."
Friedkin's final pick is Orson Welles' famous film inspired by the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane.
"There's a lot of controversy about the writing," Friedkin says. "Most of the script was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, but the vision behind the film is Orson Welles.
"It was his first film. He was 25 years old, and he revolutionized world cinema. You can mark the change in cinema from before Citizen Kane to after Citizen Kane because it synthesized everything in terms of technique that came before, and it pointed the way to the future."
Friedkin says the film continues to reveal new insights with every view.
"I've seen [it] almost 200 times. ... Even though I now know how every shot was made, I continue to see details that I hadn't noticed before. Little touches here and there, almost like those great Islamic tapestries that you see that are filled with so many details, yet you can stand back and look at the overall and be wowed."
Of all the films he mentioned, Friedkin says, it's Welles' masterpiece that inspires him the most.
"I hope to one day — I'm now 76 years old — but I hope one day to make a film that could be mentioned in the same sentence with Citizen Kane."
More Must-Sees From William Friedkin
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
All About Eve
Paths of Glory
An American in Paris