(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
“I wonder why we waste our lives here/When we could run away to paradise/But I am held in some invisible vice/And I can’t get away…”
In an age of “one-click” accessibility to a plethora of media, it’s surprising that a film as salient as To Live and Die in L.A. is so difficult to find. Void from the usual suspects of streaming platforms and rental/download services, William Friedkin’s 1985 neo-noir thriller was last released in 2016 as a collector’s edition Blu-Ray, featuring a brand new 4k restoration from the original 35mm negative. The film has since taken on a cult status amongst cinephiles and repertory theaters, where screenings are a guaranteed sell out. While its current scarcity undoubtedly plays into the lore that surrounds it, To Live and Die in L.A. transcends the cult genre and revival house programming. It’s not only one of the most potent crime films ever made, but a unique time capsule of Los Angeles.
The film belongs to a subset of Los Angeles neo-noir thrillers that were released throughout the eighties, aesthetically influential enough to provide the blueprint for video games such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002) and films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). But unlike it’s neon-tinted contemporaries, To Live and Die in L.A. is decidedly nihilistic. Instead of the sun-soaked glamour and opulent hedonism of eighties Los Angeles depicted in films such as Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980), the world of To Live and Die in L.A. is gritty and anarchic. The swaying palm trees of Rodeo Drive are replaced by the graffitied overpasses of Temple and 18th Street. The smokey dive bars of Boyle Heights are favored over the poolside patios of Beverly Hills. The twinkling marquees of Hollywood are dismissed for the cold lights of oil refineries in San Pedro. Despite having it’s own kind of fashionable blue collar aestheticism, the film negates the coked-out affluence and brazen excess prevalent in glossy crime thrillers of its era; more akin to an episode of Miami Vice after its been thrown out of the back door of a one drink minimum strip club for being too belligerent. In this way, the film’s seditious agnosticism is more spiritually connected to the crime dramas of the seventies, despite being one of the most iconic films of the eighties. In Counterfeit World, a documentary on the making of To Live and Die in L.A., director William Friedkin sums up his approach to the film by saying, “I thought To Live and Die in L.A. was about a counterfeit world: counterfeit emotions, counterfeit money, the counterfeit superstructure of the secret service; everyone in the film has a counterfeit motive. So it seems to me that the whole film was about counterfeit relations.”
Provided this directorial insight, it’s understandable why Friedkin chose to frame Los Angeles the way he did. Los Angeles is counterfeit: a city that sells the rose-tinted dream of fame and fortune, the romantic allure of sunset beaches and celebrity packed rooftop parties and gated mansions up in the Hollywood Hills. But this dream is paper-thin, printed on the sanguineness of starry eyes, bought and sold to the highest bidder. Beneath the glitzy facade is a dark-tinted undercurrent that permeates the city, found on dirty boulevards of broken dreams and on the cutting room floors of aspirations gone wrong. It’s in these places that we find Friedkin’s L.A: a city calloused by concrete and steel, populated by malicious anti-hero’s who have ulterior motives. The film personifies Los Angeles as a fictitious, deceptive character; a smoggy and industrial place masquerading as a sun-kissed paradise, filled with counterfeit intentions.
Although To Live and Die in L.A. is an undeniable product of its time, it’s lasting reverberation harkens back to the timeless storytelling adage, “Simple plot, complex characters.” On paper, the plot is explicitly simple: a renegade secret service agent will stop at nothing to bring down the illusive counterfeiter who killed his partner. It’s a familiar tale of redemption dressed up as a pulpy action film, filled with archetypes audiences have come to expect: the vigilante cop, the femme fatale, the crooked lawyer, the smooth criminal. But Friedkin injects these prosaic models with a kind of three-dimensionality that blurs the line between heroes and villains. This is best exemplified by Rick Masters (played by Willem Dafoe in all his villainous glory), an artist who makes counterfeit money to support his real art but burns his real art because his real art is the counterfeit money. Loaded, I know, but it’s this kind of complexity that transcends Masters from simply being the proverbial bad guy to being a multi-layered character. He’s a criminal, yes, but he’s also a painter with all of the hallmarks of the “frustrated artist.” He’s methodical, temperamental, and cunning; a calculated perfectionist who creates and destroys his own art with the same level of passion and dedication as his counterfeit money. Compounded with Dafoe’s menacing performance, Masters is a character that has enough intricacy to spawn his own multi-season series.
Countering Masters is William Peterson’s portrayal of Richard Chance, a “devil may care” secret service agent who goes above and below the law to track down the man who murdered his partner. Chance is a rebel with a badge, fearless and brash, narrowing escaping death in the line of duty only to spend his free time base-jumping from bridges. He has powerplay affairs with his informants, a penchant for whiskey and beer, and doesn’t like to follow orders. Peterson plays Chance with a confident swagger, more like an outlaw cowboy than a federal agent (it’s no coincidence that Chance is usually sporting snakeskin cowboy boots). He’s a fatally flawed protagonist with a death wish, so hellbent on revenge that he fails to acknowledge the damaging effects it’s having on himself and those around him. Jeff Bridges, Richard Gere, and Harrison Ford were all considered for the role of Chance, but Friedkin wanted to go with an unknown actor. Much like Dafoe’s Masters, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but Peterson playing Chance, and it’s one of the defining roles of his career.
The duality of Masters and Chance and the world they inhabit is part of a persistent thematic thread in the fabric of Friedkin’s filmography. For every yin there is a yang, and time and again these counterpoints converge. It’s at this intersection point that we find Friedkin’s filmography, obscuring the line between right and wrong, good and evil, justice and corruption, and even life and death (in L.A.). In Friedkin’s supernatural horror film The Exorcist (1973), Father Damien Karras is a Jesuit priest losing his religion. When tasked with performing an exorcism, he’s forced to confront his own faith. In Cruising (1980), straitlaced police officer Steve Burns is sent undercover into the S&M scene of New York City to solve a murder, only to find himself questioning his own code of honor and moral compass. In all of these films, Friedkin’s exploration of duality is always a question mark rather than an exclamation point, a query instead of a sermon. When the plot of his films conclude themselves, the existential issues they raise continue to linger in ambiguity. Whether confronting faith or morality, there is no neat ribbon tied around the finality of these films; no sugar coated ending or cherry on top payoff. Sometimes the good guys don’t always win. Sometimes the good guys become the bad guys. And often times, you can’t tell the difference.
Outside of Dafoe and Peterson, the film is loaded with stellar performances from John Turturro, Debra Feuer, Darlene Fluegel, and John Pankow. Robby Müller’s cinematography (best known for his work on Paris, Texas (1984) and Repo Man (1984), both shot directly before To Live and Die in L.A.) is simultaneously naturalistic and impressionistic, jumping from seedy exteriors to multi-hued interiors. Friedkin’s razor sharp direction – a result of budgetary restrictions and Friedkin’s preference to work quickly – gives the scenes a charged sense of immediacy. Most of the film is made up of first takes and rehearsals, providing a kinetic energy to the action on screen. But overshadowing all of these accolades is the film’s soundtrack and climatic car chase sequence.
Initially, Friedkin wanted Miles Davis to score the film. The two were good friends, and Friedkin had always flirted with the idea of a collaboration. Due to scheduling conflicts, Davis was unable to commit to the project, but would act as a sounding board for Friedkin postproduction. “I remember showing The French Connection to him [Davis],” Friedkin would say, “and his comment after was, ‘Hey Billy, how come it takes two guys to chase one guy?’ Later, when I did To Live and Die in L.A., I showed it to him and he said, ‘Two guys to chase one guy again?” Davis’ unavailability forced Friedkin to look in other musical directions, leading him to Wang Chung’s 1983 sophomore album, Points On The Curve. Friedkin was impressed by the record and contacted the English band about collaborating on a score. Without supplying any footage from the film, Wang Chung wrote the music for the soundtrack in two weeks based off Friedkin’s vague direction of, “Write songs that don’t have an end or beginning.” Friedkin would reuse the songs “Dancehall Days” and “Wait” from Points On The Curve, and after an assembly
cut of the film was delivered, Wang Chung would write the famous title track. Friedkin would later say that he chose Wang Chung to compose the soundtrack because they “stood out from the rest of contemporary music. What they recorded not only enhanced the film, it gave it a deeper, more powerful dimension.” Friedkin would go on to direct Wang Chung’s music video for “To Live and Die in L.A,” which peaked at #41 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in September of 1985. The music would take on a life of it’s own separate from the film, eclipsing the soundtrack
category to be revered as a quintessential new wave album. Perhaps more so than anything else, the soundtrack is what dates the film to such a specific time period. Replaced with a more conventional orchestral score or a Miles Davis soundtrack, the film would feel less indigenous to the mid-eighties. But it certainly wouldn’t be nearly as singular in authorship without the music of Wang Chung.
The centerpiece of To Live and Die in L.A. is an eight minute long car chase sequence that traverses East Los Angeles (mostly shot on the Terminal Island Freeway in Wilmington, CA). It follows an unhinged Chance piloting a Chevy Impala through tight alleys, busy streets, flood control channels, and packed freeways as he attempts to evade assistants. Friedkin was no stranger to car chase sequences, having constructed one of the most seminal in The French Connection (1971). Friedkin saved the car chase until after principal photography had wrapped, pairing down to a small skeleton crew of second unit grips and cameramen. While on set, a hesitant Friedkin told stunt coordinator, Buddy Joe Hooker, “If we can’t come up with a chase better than the one in The French Connection, then we won’t use it.” Friedkin proceeded to put together one of the most exciting car chase in cinema history, rivaling the likes of Bullitt (1968) and Vanishing Point (1971). With Peterson doing much of his own stunt-driving (Peterson would later say he believed the car chase was the last thing to be shot because “if I died doing it, Billy
still had a movie”), the elaborate sequence was shot over the course of a six-week long period that put the film behind schedule and a million dollars over budget. The result is a masterclass in practical filmmaking, containing some of the most high-octane, edge of your seat energy ever projected onto the silver screen – as impressive today as it was in 1985.
To Live and Die in L.A. is a wildly important film, and it’s a shame it has disappeared from the current libraries of digital platforms. Taken at face value within its category of a neo-noir thriller, it’s a bonafide classic. The subversion of genre expectations, the documentation of Los Angeles during a definitively nostalgic time period, the instantly recognizable soundtrack, and the numerous pedigrees of cinematic craftsmanship ranging from cinematography to editing to production design make it a film that shouldn’t be such a struggle to find. To Live and Die in
L.A. should be as readily available as other classic Los Angeles neo-noirs such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), deserving of the same amount of clout as concurrent films such as Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) – also starring a steezy William Peterson. Unfortunately, the film seems to have found itself in a losing battle to the ever-advancing tide of time and onslaught of media consumption. If you can get your hands on a Blu-Ray copy or tickets to a repertory screening, you’ll notice how much of a precedent it set for likeminded films, and how many films have since borrowed, referenced, or repurposed it. You’ll also notice that the film epitomizes a certain kind of eighties neo-noir, dating it in the most romantic way possible. It makes you want to go back to the grimy streets of East Los Angeles circa 1985. It makes you ask yourself, “Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?” | e hehr