“We’re going this way”: “To Live and Die in L.A.” at 35

To Live and Die in L.A. (MGM/UA)

Pegged upon release as a retread of previous work, William Friedkin’s neo-noir is something altogether different.

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By the mid-1980s, it seemed as if William Friedkin’s once-promising career was officially on the rocks.  For his next project, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), it appeared to many observers that he was blatantly retreating to the kind of cop thriller narrative that was the source of his first great success as a way of scoring an easy box office hit. Considering that the best-known name on the credits at the time other than his belonged to Wang Chung, it also seemed as if the man who once reinvigorated the cop movie genre was trying to emulate Miami Vice. Who could have possibly guessed that rather than just a slick retread, Friedkin would offer a stunning bit of cinema?

Based on a novel by Gerald Petievich (who shares screenplay credit with Friedkin), the film stars a then-unknown William Petersen as Richard Chance, a reckless Los Angeles Secret Service agent who specializes in counterfeiting investigations. When his veteran partner, Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), investigates a warehouse belonging to master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), he dies at the hand of Masters’ bodyguard. With that, Chance vows to do anything to bring Masters down.

With straight-laced new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance goes about trying to get information on Masters. But there’s tension between the two. Vukovich wants to go by the book. Chance isn’t above using informant Ruth (Debra Feuer), whom he also exploits for sexual gratification, for details. Posing as bankers, Chance and Vukovich eventually set up a meeting with Masters, who reluctantly agrees to print $1 million but demands a $30,000 advance payment. The hitch? That the Secret Service has a $10,000 limit, and they refuse Chance and Vukovich any more.

This all leads to one of the most breathtaking car chase sequences in any film. Ruth has told Chance of a businessman who is arriving with $50,000 to purchase some stolen diamonds. Chance’s idea is to break up the buy, take the money for themselves, and use it to pay Masters in order to bust him. While the two do grab the money, their getaway transforms into an ever-expanding nightmare of vehicular warfare that culminates when Chance starts speeding through the freeway in the wrong direction.

In most circumstances, a car chase signals a lack of real inspiration on the part of the filmmakers, who are content with treading narrative water under the guise of carnage. Friedkin’s celebrated chase scene in The French Connection (1971) was one of the few to buck this trend, and here he managed to outdo even himself. Shot over the course of nearly six weeks by second-unit cameraman Robert D. Yeoman and assembled by editor Scott Smith, the scene is a master class of action filmmaking that stresses the chaotic nature of what’s unfolding. At the same time, it presents it in a clear and controlled manner that never devolves into over-edited muck.

As great as this sequence is, the film as a whole is a lot smarter and more ambitious than some initially mistook it for. Although this is a movie obsessed with the idea of fakes, there’s a sense of authenticity that cuts through the surface and sticks with viewers afterward. Even if you didn’t know going in that Petievich himself had been a former Secret Service agent, you get the sense from the details on display that the filmmakers didn’t invent this story’s elements out of whole cloth.

This is especially true of the strangely spellbinding moments in which Masters goes about his work with the obsessed determination one might expect to see in an artist pursuing their craft. Friedkin employed an actual counterfeiter to help stage this, and the result is electrifying. It’s a scene that generates tension while visually explaining a craft—the only thing I can compare it to is the sequence in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) where John Travolta uses magazine photos and audio recordings to create an exposé film.

[Y]ou get the sense from the details on display that the filmmakers didn’t invent this story’s elements out of whole cloth.

Presumably as the result of having to work on a budget that did not allow for big-name stars, Friedkin ended up casting the film with a number of lesser-known players. They not only proved to be absolutely ideal in their roles, but they’d also go on to become stars themselves. At the time that he was cast as Chance, Petersen was a Chicago stage actor whose only film credit was a brief appearance in Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), but his turn as an adrenaline-junkie cop willing to sacrifice everyone around him was truly a star-making performance.

He also proved to be a perfect match for Dafoe, who delivered an equally driven portrait of obsession as Masters. Many films have pulled the trick of portraying the hero and villain as being two sides of the same coin but rarely is it as effective as here. Also unknown at the time, John Turturro turns up in a brief but indelible bit as a mule busted by Chance and Vukovich during a thrilling airport chase. Also, while Dean Stockwell wasn’t exactly unknown at the time, his turn as a manipulative lawyer helped set the stage for his performances in Blue Velvet (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988).

Perhaps not surprisingly for a thriller lacking a clear-cut hero and happy ending, To Live and Die in L.A. didn’t fare well with audiences when it was released. In its opening weekend, it came in second at the box office to Death Wish 3 (1985). What was more surprising, though, is how many critics dismissed it as well. Although critics like Roger Ebert praised it, many wrote it off as a failed attempt by Friedkin to recreate past glories while failing to recognize that he was giving them something altogether different.

As the years have passed, the critical consensus has grown in its favor to the point where it’s usually considered to be one of the best and most influential films of its type from the last few decades. Even though Mann’s Heat (1995) is usually cited as the quintessential L.A. crime movie, the influence of Friedkin’s film can be felt in it throughout. Once timely and now timeless, To Live and Die in L.A. is a true classic of the genre that still has the power to shock even the most jaded moviegoers. Oh yeah, and the Wang Chung soundtrack still slams.

To Live and Die in L.A. Trailer:

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