To Live and Die in L.A
1985. Directed by William Friedkin.
William Friedkin’s renegade gut shot, To Live and Die in L.A. is a brilliant neo-noir and a painfully detailed crime thriller. Filled with desperate lawmen and intriguing criminals, Friedkin’s neon drenched city of fallen angels delivers a nihilistic deconstruction of the hero cop films that were prevalent during the 1980’s and remains an important example of artistic freedom today.
Chance is a secret service agent stationed in LA. His partner is murdered by a slick counterfeiter named Masters. Chance vows revenge at any cost, bending the law whenever he can to get closer to Masters. His antics pull him and his new partner Vukovich across the line when the two become involved in a conspiracy to obtain cash to buy Masters’s confidence. Things predictably go awry and soon the two agents are involved in one of the greatest car chase sequences ever filmed and forced to confront their evil deeds head on, resulting in a brutal finale in which Friedkin’s dissent becomes clear: Not only does no one ever get away clean, life inevitably and mercilessly goes on.
This is one of the most authentic crime films ever made. Friedkin consulted a convicted criminal and used him as a consultant on the counterfeiting scenes. The money that was produced was so realistic, the Secret Service interviewed a dozen cast members and Friedkin himself after some of it was used off set. Based on a novel by a retired secret service agent, the dialogue and weary agency politics feel frustratingly real, as do the natural reactions of the agents.
William Petersen’s Chance is an urban cowboy, a summation of rogue cop bravado and red blooded Americana. Petersen does an outstanding job, portraying Chance as a zealot, a true believer in his cause whose bravura is his armor. Willem Dafoe plays Masters, the foil. While Chance is the bull, Masters is the fox, with Dafoe gliding through his scenes with a fatalistic quality that makes him stand out from his criminal counterparts. While Chance is the epitome of the law in Friedkin’s poisoned city, Masters is the streets, the promises that LA whispers in the viewer’s ear. On the surface, Dafoe appears handsome, almost androgynous, a black angel who operates in the open, exploiting loophole after loophole.
John Pankow has the most understated role as Vukovich, the reluctant partner who helplessly orbits around Chance’s fury, beginning as an idealist and slowly transforming into a disciple. Dean Stockwell and John Turturro round out the cast as a compromised lawyer and a nervous bagman. It’s one of the many things in this unique vision that make it memorable, no one is exactly what they appear to be, and the hidden agendas reinforce the noir paradigm with a calculated design.
Robby Muller’s gritty cinematography captures the elusive city with blistering wide shots that open the film, illustrating the pressure cooker environs with an ominous red dawn. Every exterior has a primal feel, bringing the urban jungle to life, while each of the interior locations, designed by Cricket Rowland, offset the danger by giving the illusion of sanctuary. The film’s major set piece, a high speed car chase going against the flow of traffic is a must see. Petersen did most of his own driving, with Pankow’s backseat hysterics being real. The scene took six weeks to shoot, putting the film a million dollars over budget, with the crew shutting down traffic for several hours a day. The end result rivals Friedkin’s work on French Connection’s infamous car chase sequence.
80’s band Wang Chung did the soundtrack, combining pop culture elements with a downbeat synth score that oozes in the background. Everything was done as fast as possible, with Friedkin filming the actors during “takes” and using the test footage rather than formal clips. One such segment, involving a chase in an airport got the crew in hot water with the airport authorities, as Petersen ignored their warnings and ran atop the divider between two moving sidewalks. Add in the film’s surprisingly abrupt climax and the result is a one of kind potboiler that would never get made today.
Available now for digital rental or on an amazing Shout Factory blu ray, To Live and Die in L.A. is a must see film for fans of the crime genre and an outstanding offering from one of the greatest directors of all time. Friedkin had several misses that did not connect with audiences and To Live and Die in L.A. was a lean and perfectly nasty return to form. A film that has no heroes, only manipulators of opportunity, if you’re looking for a nostalgic jaunt into the dark side of the 80’s, you can’t got wrong with this one.
Highly. Highly Recommend.