After gaining recognition in the television industry for his documentary feature The People Versus Paul Crump (1962), William Friedkin was invited to sign with the William Morris agency, and to meet award-winning documentary producer David Wolper in Los Angeles. In 1965 Wolper assigned Friedkin to direct a series of three films for TV, for which Wolper had only titles and which he had sold to the 3M Company: The Bold Men, Pro Football: Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon and The Thin Blue Line.
The films had to adhere to Wolper’s commercial expectations, to capture the largest possible audience, and so on the whole they reflect no obvious directorial vision that one can connect with Friedkin’s later films. Nevertheless the documentaries explore themes that would continue to attract Friedkin over the decades and some of the images, even as described on paper, would seem to resonate with moments in The French Connection (1971) and To Live and Die in LA (1985) in particular. In addition, Friedkin’s time working for Wolper initiated creative partnerships that would serve him well in some of his most remarkable works. It is during this period when he began to collaborate with editor Bud Smith and first met writer Walon Green.
Only one of the three films, Pro Football: Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon (1965), is currently available for home viewing, and its subject matter would appear less pertinent to Friedkin’s major works than the other two. Without seeing The Bold Men (1965) and The Thin Blue Line (1965), one cannot judge how closely Friedkin’s earliest shots of death-defying leaps, dangerous speeding automobiles and the grist of daily police work anticipated his later New York and LA set rogue cop films. Pro Football: Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon does, however, depict a world, as Friedkin chooses to perceive it, underscored by violence and risk.
The story, credited to Friedkin, focuses on an exhibition game between the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers at a time when American football was starting to become a big business. Friedkin would later make another film about money and sport, the basketball drama Blue Chips (1994). Viewers are given a potted history of the game, using spliced-in archival footage, and are taken behind the scenes of each club’s training process, involving intensely physical exercises, diagrammed play strategies, injury prevention measures, and also the reflective interlude during the bus ride to the game. Working alongside Smith and sound recordist Nigel Noble, Friedkin’s interest in the dynamic use of sound to create energy and texture, and his tendency to combine frantic movement and collisions with quiet, time-consuming processes is already evident here – the main musical cues on the whole, mostly electric organ-led jazz excerpts, are of little interest but some of the stark discords, especially at the end, are not far from the sort of avant-garde passages that Friedkin would incorporate into subsequent films.
Much of the narration, voiced by Van Heflin, foregrounds the dangers inherent in the sport and lines uttered by players themselves convey a stoical, even carefree attitude to the inevitable violence of the game. One rookie explains: “I just forget about my life when I go in there. I’m not going to worry about what happens to me, It’s just gonna be a destroy type of deal. It’s either him or me. It’s the way it’s gonna be.” One cannot help but think of two of Friedkin’s most unswerving characters, the reckless police officers Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle and Richard Chance – the latter, incidentally, is seen in an early scene of To Live and Die in LA wearing a football shirt – who are both seen tackling criminals to the ground.
Despite its foreboding opening line, “This quiet Sunday afternoon will end in violence,” the tension in Pro Football: Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon is largely undermined by the fact that the Browns were the favourites to win from the start, having closed out the previous season as league champions.
The NFL were at the time responsible for their own filming and permission was sought by Friedkin to gain access to the training camps and film the match. Cinematographer Vilis Lapenieks joined Friedkin on all three of the Wolper documentaries. He had previously collaborated with filmmaker Curtis Harrington to great effect on his first feature-length film Night Tide (1961). Lapenieks teamed up with cameraman John Alonzo – who would later go on to work on Chinatown (1974) – to shoot the Browns and 49ers game in close-up shots, as well as getting crowd-perspective coverage. This allowed Smith and Friedkin to cut between assaultive frontline action for emotional impact and a more comprehensible wide shot for narrative – together creating an effective visual style for conveying the drama of the game.
Friedkin’s enthusiasm at this early stage in his career for drawing on the innovative techniques of the European New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni was reined in by Wolper, who demanded that the documentaries have a narrative coherence for viewers. While overt ruptures of accepted modes of filmmaking might be few, the film includes repeated shots to underscore thematic throughlines, and it also signposts Friedkin’s attention to sound design. Experiences of working in a comparatively conventional documentary style gave Friedkin an eye for detail, an insight into the working relationships among colleagues and a connection to those on the margins, or on the edge of society and engaged in perilous undertakings. All of these factors, then, were knitted into Friedkin’s work already by 1965 but it was not until he directed The French Connection that they would find a brilliant synthesis for the first time.