And then there’s the opening shot, of a completely innocuous brick home. But the low angle of the shot, the music, the wind, it’s all so instantly unsettling.
The way the title jumps onto the screen (whereas Friedkin and Blatty’s respective credits slowly faded in). And the music, and the font, and the color.
The increased shutter speed of many of the Iraq shots (it’s why the actors’ movements look slightly sped up and “herky-jerky”). Adds to the mystery of the sequence.
The match-cut of the kid jumping into the trench.
Not to mention, the hurried pan shot of the kid running in the trench (again with the jacked shutter speed).
You know you’ve used good aging make-up when the actor looks the same today as he did with the make-up on 43 years ago.
The graceful manner in which Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) waves off these guards.
This has nothing to do with anything, but isn’t it always strange/fun to see your old stomping grounds appear in a classic movie? The amount of hazy nights/mornings I spent walking on that bridge...
I love that the first time we see Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is one of the only times he smiles in the movie.
Now’s a good time to bring up The Exorcist’s incredible use of zoom lenses. Cinematographer Owen Roizman (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work in the film) uses zooms constantly in the movie. This is one of my favorites. It begins above Chris as she gives her speech, then spends 21 seconds slowly zooming into Father Karras, as he stands in appreciation of Chris’ work, before walking away. I have a personal fascination with zoom shots, because they are so rarely used in film today. Most DPs opt for dolly tracks or steadicams to move in on a subject, but in the ‘70s, zoom lenses were king.
So look (and listen) here. Here we have our main character taking a perfectly innocent walk home. There’s literally nothing eerie about this shot, except Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” playing over the soundtrack. That’s the power of music.
This is one of the most depressing scenes in the movie. In hindsight, we know that this is the only time we’re going to see Regan (Linda Blair) fully normal. It’s all downhill from here.
The way the white-hot light illuminates Father Karras as he walks up the steps. That’s storytelling through cinematography.
I love that this seemingly minor scene between the subway vagrant and Father Karras ends up being one of the most important scenes of the film.
The brief scene that introduces us to Reverend Thomas Bermingham. Bermingham was a reverend in real life, and his only acting credit was in The Exorcist. It’s one of the most authentic performances from a non-actor that I’ve ever seen.
Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman) trying to conceal his smile when asking Chris if she knows that Regan uses obscenities.
Everything an actor needs to know about contained rage can be found in this scene. The way Miller quickly pulls his arm away from the patient – his face, his posture, the movement itself – that’s acting.
Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) taunting poor Karl (Rudolf Schündler) at the party. “And you never went bowling with Goebbels either I suppose, eh? Nazi bastard.” It’s such cruel stuff but it always cracks me up.
The sympathy on Father Dyer’s (William O’Malley) face as Regan pees on the rug. Again, O’Malley was a priest in real life and The Exorcist was his only acting credit. I love that The Exorcist contains such real performances from non-performers.
I love that you really have to pay attention to get the full effect of the film. For example, the first shot here is the shot that opens the party sequence. Notice the purple light being emitted from the top left window. The bottom photo is during the bed-shaking scene, once the party is over. These two shots are the only clear evidence that that is Regan’s window, which will be very important later, during the film’s most iconic shot.
Here’s Paul Bateson. Bateson was a technician at the NYU Medical Center when The Exorcist was shot. In the film, he is essentially playing himself. In the years following The Exorcist’s release, Bateson would often pick up men at gay bars, have sex with them, then murder and mutilate their bodies. Bateson was caught in 1979, and his story became the basis of Friedkin’s wildly controversial 1980 film, Cruising.
The look of total bafflement on Dr. Klein’s face the first time he witnesses one of Regan’s episodes. Dr. Klein’s reaction is so upsetting. After all, if the people who are supposed to help us are too stunned to do so, then we’re all fucked.
Again with the flickering lights. Trouble sleeps here.
The way Chuck (Ron Faber) slowly takes off his hat before he tells Chris and Sharon (Kitty Winn) that Burke is dead.
I love that Lt. William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) doesn’t tell Karras that Karras looks like an actual boxer, but rather like John Garfield who played a boxer in Body and Soul. That’s something only huge film fans do.
The clinical conversations have always been some of my favorite scenes in the film. They are great lessons in how to distribute expository information economically. In the beginning of this scene, only Dr. Barringer (Peter Masterson) speaks to Chris. But when Barringer moves the conversation toward religion, the other doctors speak up, though never talking over one another. It’s obvious that all these doctors have had a conversation prior to Chris coming into the room, about who should say what, and when they should say it. In short, a lot of thought went into this conversation in the film, which is evidence of great screenwriting.
This scene, filled with great zoom lens shots.
Chris’ slightly annoyed reaction when Kinderman accepts her offer for more coffee. Everyone knows “Would you like some more coffee?” means “So are we finished here?” But Kinderman has a little left in him.
This low angle shot of Karras. Similarly to Karras walking up to the subway station in New York, notice how he is rising into frame.
The way Karras stops walking when Chris says the word “exorcism.” Look at Miller’s face and body language. Such command of the frame. And this was his first movie!
One of my favorite shots in the film. The camera tracks Chris as she walks into the house, then the camera waits for Karras to walk into frame. It’s such a good way to hold tension – Did Karras come home with her or not…?
“Can you help an old alter boy, Father.” And BAM, there it is, a callback to Karras’ brief moment with the subway vagrant. How in the hell could Regan know of that interaction?
“You’re daughter doesn’t say she’s a demon. She says she’s the devil himself. Now if you’ve seen as many psychotics as I have, you realize that’s the same thing as saying you’re Napoleon Bonaparte.”
This is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It’s Reverend Thomas Bermingham (remember him from earlier) and Bishop Michael (Wallace Rooney) discussing if they should approve of the exorcism. What I love about the scene is how casual the actors play it. It’s as if one of them is asking the other about an auto mechanic he trusts, because he’s tired of getting screwed over by the dealership. The actors are serious, but not melodramatic. We are seeing them behind closed doors, doing their job, which adds weight to what is to come.
The sound of the blacksmiths slowly coming over the soundtrack as Father Merrin gets word of the exorcism.
And here it is, one of the most iconic shots in the history of film, which, believe it or not, is given that much more weight because of a purple fish tank from earlier.
“Do you want to hear the background of the case first, Father?”
This brief (and final) interaction between Chris and Father Merrin. It’s so fragile and earnest.
There’s an interesting bit in Friedkin’s memoir, “The Friedkin Connection,” about this moment. For the scene where Father Merrin attempts to cast out the demon from Regan (and the ceiling cracks above him), von Sydow could not deliver a take with the intensity Friedkin required. They attempted to shoot the scene dozens of times (breaking a fake ceiling every time), but von Sydow could not do it. Finally, Friedkin offered to fly Ingmar Bergman to the set so he could direct the scene. Von Sydow said the problem was that he could not believe Merrin’s words, because von Sydow himself does not believe in God. Friedkin then directed von Sydow to play Merrin as a man, rather than a priest with supernatural powers. Von Sydow asked for an hour of solitude, then walked on set and delivered the take that is in the film.
This is one of those rare, pure cinema moments. Every time I watch The Exorcist, a few tears form in my eyes as Regan rises from the bed and Merrin and Karras repeatedly yell “The power of Christ compels you!” These aren’t tears of fear or sadness, but rather of appreciation. Pure cinema is when every needed element of film comes together to produce an awe-inspiring moment. And this is indeed that.
These three consecutive shots are so immaculacy composed, they could’ve easily earned Roizman his Oscar nomination by themselves.
This jump cut.
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