❉ Johnny Restall revisits William Friedkin’s ferociously stylish 1985 thriller.
At first glance, the plot could scarcely sound less original: when his partner is murdered just days before retirement, a maverick secret service agent vows revenge on his killer at any cost. But if director William Friedkin’s ferociously stylish 1985 thriller To Live and Die in L.A. has a moral at its dark heart, it is that first glances rarely tell you the truth in a world of ambition, greed, and deception.
According to Friedkin’s commentary for the 2018 Arrow Video Blu-ray release, he was initially drawn to the project by a desire to explore the surreal nature of secret service life – protecting VIPs one day, the next working undercover in far less glamourous environments. The very first scenes directly reflect this strange dichotomy. Pre-credits, we encounter Richard Chance (William Petersen) and Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) protecting the visiting US President, stereotypical in discreet dark suits, sunglasses, and earpieces, springing into action at the slightest signal. Having established the more reputable side of the protagonist’s world, the credits promptly plunge us into a contrastingly run-down Los Angeles, following fraudulent money through the streets to the beat of Wang Chung’s pulsating score. This clash – between slick surfaces and seedy underbellies, wealth and poverty, law and illegality – dominates the film as it explores the shady ways in which these areas intersect, united by the lure of the almighty dollar.
Although the film begins on the 20th of December, there is not a Santa Claus or decoration in sight, and a distinct lack of good will towards anyone. It is simply another season for the characters, with the holidays so irrelevant that they are never even mentioned beyond dates on the screen. Chance’s only present appears to be finding Hart dead on Christmas Eve, killed by ruthless counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). Chance’s New Year’s resolution is a stark declaration of sociopathic machismo: “I’m gonna bag Masters, and I don’t give a shit how I do it.”
In many other action movies of the 1980s, Chance’s selfish macho ambition would be presented as laudable. His superior Bateman (Robert Downey) can only rein him in with the cliched threat of paperwork and bureaucracy, with rules and “pencil-neck” deskwork being the only things he truly fears. Yet the steely-eyed script, adapted by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich from the latter’s novel, refuses to endorse Chance’s testosterone-fuelled belligerence, brilliantly embodied by Petersen’s compelling but boldly unsympathetic performance.
It is even plausible to argue that Chance is really the villain of the story. He slowly and quite deliberately erodes the conscience of his more straightlaced new partner Vukovich (John Pankow) for his own ends. The audience is consistently shown the consequences of Chance’s rash actions. On more than one occasion, he is easily deceived by others preying on his blind arrogance, and he has no qualms about putting people directly in harm’s way, including the general public. Further, we see that he simply does not care about the trail of destruction he creates, as long as he can convince himself of victory in the end. After another of his plans turns into a disaster, we get a brief flash of him mentally reliving his earlier recreational bungee jump, as though it were all part of the same thrill. Win or lose, right or wrong, it seems clear that all he really craves is adrenaline. (In contrast, at the same moment Vukovich thinks regretfully of the dead man they have left behind.)
Chance’s morally and possibly consensually dubious relationship with his ex-convict informer Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) suggests that even sex is essentially meaningless to him, to be used at his convenience for his own advantage. Despite his physical intimacy with her, he is unaware that she has a child, which implies not just a total lack of personal interest but a lack of professional diligence regarding her background too, considering the nature of their association. When she asks him what he would do if she stopped giving him information, he coldly replies: “I’d have your parole revoked.” His response is both shockingly callous and arrogantly ill-judged, being too hot-headed to seriously consider that she might eventually repay him in an equally ruthless fashion.
In contrast Masters, the film’s nominal antagonist, is shown to be meticulous, patient, creative, and cunning. He is thoroughly professional in his approach to his business, mixing his artistic talents with his criminal background. In an extraordinary wordless sequence lasting almost five minutes, we observe his painstaking, skilful mastery of the art of forgery – the contrast with Chance’s bullish attitude is stark. Masters is a man of genuine talent and aesthetic appreciation, with Dafoe bringing an amused, intelligent quality to the role beyond simplistic villainy. He is also extremely dangerous, but unlike Chance his bursts of brutality are controlled and carefully directed, rarely reckless or public. Despite this, he ultimately shares Chance’s self-destructive streak, choosing to burn his paintings and pursue forgery as his primary goal. His preference for literally making his own money rather than following his deeper talents is a damning reflection of the avaricious culture surrounding him.
Chance and Masters are not alone in their venality, however – almost every single supporting character in the film is pursuing an angle for their own financial gain. The President himself plays cards with the agents guarding him, gambling for high stakes; from the top down, the voracious greed and ambition is endemic. Amiably slippery lawyer Grimes (Dean Stockwell) appears happy to work on both sides of the legal line, changing sides and manipulating events while barely breaking a sweat in his expensive-looking clothes. Masters’ inscrutable girlfriend Bianca (Debra Feuer) first appears literally performing a part, hidden behind a mask of make-up and a wig. She plays an active role in his criminal activities, entrapping the duplicitous Waxman (Christopher Allport), but her exact reasons for doing so only become clear in her mercenary final scene. Only Vukovich and Ruth ever express any moral scruples, but even they end the film utterly corrupted, brought together in an exploitative alliance which suggests the cycle of usury and duplicity will continue unbroken.
This analysis may make To Live and Die in L.A. sound relentlessly grim. However, like Friedkin’s 1977 Sorcerer, its despair is firmly locked into step with a fearsome level of tension and visceral excitement. The high octane pace of the film never flags, with terrific performances matching brilliantly staged set-pieces and a breathless sense of momentum. Most notably, the spectacular car chase following a botched robbery easily equals the famous pursuit from the director’s Academy Award-winning 1971 classic The French Connection. The film also looks absolutely stunning, thanks to the desolate beauty of Robby Muller’s exquisite cinematography.
Initially, nervous MGM studio executives obliged Friedkin to shoot an alternative ending to replace the film’s astonishingly dark but perfectly judged conclusion. Fortunately, the ludicrous ‘happy’ ending was never used beyond previews. The film was released unchanged to a somewhat mixed critical reception, but has slowly and deservedly grown in stature over the years. It has aged extremely well, with its unique blend of fierce action, neo-noir style, and implicit social commentary retaining a thrillingly sharp sting.
❉ ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ (1985) Directed by William Friedkin. With William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer. Released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films 15 Dec 2017 in a brand-new 4K restoration from the original 35mm negative. RRP £19.99.