To Live and Die In LA
If Sam Peckinpah and Michael Mann had collaborated on a tough thriller then the result might have been something like To Live and Die In LA. A sun-bleached study in corruption and soul-destroying brutality, this film by the notoriously erratic but sometimes brilliant William Friedkin is nasty, cynical and incredibly good. Generally dismissed at the time, like similar exercises such as Cimino’s Year of the Dragon and Mann’s Manhunter, it’s aged very well and survives some slightly unfortunate mid-eighties styling to stand revealed as one of the best thrillers of its time.
Spoilers are contained in the review. If you haven't seen the film then I suggest you move down to the review of the disc
The film is about the Secret Service’s incredibly broad remit to combat counterfeit crime, from a bouncing $50 cheque to a multi-million dollar money printing operation. Richard Chance (Petersen) is an experienced operative who has become cynical about the will of his organisation to take down Eric Masters (Dafoe), career criminal, artist and brilliant forger. When Masters kills Chance’s partner and best friend Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), Chance is determined to exact revenge. Shadowed and not entirely supported by his new partner, John Vukovich (Pankow), Chance becomes ever more suicidal in his efforts to take down Masters and increasingly willing to operate even further above the law than has been his custom.
The first impression that a viewer of To Live and Die In LA is bound to be left with is how bitter and cynical it is. It’s comparatively rare for an American film, even an independent one, to be quite this nihilistic and Friedkin, along with the original writer Gerald Petievich, should be congratulated for making a film which is so uncompromising. It obviously helped that it was an independent production and that the low budget dictated against the use of major stars. But the nastiness of the film is all-consuming after a while and once you’ve watched it, it’s hard to shake off the sleaziness of the world which it has presented. Everyone in the film seems to be grasping after something and the lines between heroes and villains are deliberately blurred. Chance is nominally the hero but he’s a bitter man who isn’t above fucking his girlfriend and immediately afterwards threatening her with having her parole revoked if she stops giving him the information he needs. He treats everything and everyone – except for the ill-fated Jimmy – with contempt and transfers his own suicidal urges onto his partner. During the magnificent car chase in the second hour of the film, Vukovich looks on the verge of a nervous breakdown and it’s not hard to see why he would find it necessary to abandon his initial high principles simply in order to stay alive. In contrast, Masters doesn’t seem quite as bad – he’s a sadist and a bully but the infinite care and skill he brings to his counterfeiting work - and his own painting - suggests that he has more of an inner life than Chance does. Both men die pointlessly in almost casual moments of brutal violence and the film seems to suggest that this was always going to happen sometime so why not now ? It’s this nihilistic world view that suggests Peckinpah to me, especially his own tough chase thriller The Getaway, where Steve McQueen’s ex-con was as much of an immoral bastard as the men who set him up. There’s also more than a touch of Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia in the way that a soul destroying quest leads to a meaningless death and brutality is endlessly self-consuming.
The look of the film, however, is where I’m reminded of Michael Mann. In his films Manhunter and Heat, the use of space and blue sky is intoxicating, especially when contrasted with the claustrophobic interiors in the former. Friedkin’s LA is much like Mann’s – all designer clothing, chilly blue interiors, shades and, at the heart of things, a kind of emptiness. Emotion seems to be locked out, replaced by a kind of contradictory moral universe where the wrong people die and redemption is an illusion. The beauty of the visuals seems to counterpoint the moral squalor of the world being presented, and Friedkin’s film is lucky enough to have Robby Muller as cinematography. As Paris Texas so brilliantly demonstrated, Muller is a wizard at lighting real locations to make them look like the fields of heaven and he uses a similar style to turn the LA of this film into a place which always seems to be on the verge of sundown and where the middle of the day has a strange edge which suggests that the sun is about to be engulfed by darkness.
William Friedkin is a fascinating and rather frustrating director. He’s made at least one all-time classic - The French Connection - a couple of near-classics – this film, The Exorcist - and a few brilliant failures – notably Cruising and Sorceror. But when he’s working flat-out and everything is going right, there are few other filmmakers who can match him for speed and punch. His work here is exemplary although it has to be said that it does lack a certain subtlety and finesse that might have made the film a real 10/10 classic. However, sometimes skill and slickness are enough and To Live and Die In LA works because it’s exactly the slickness of the surface which is so queasy. Friedkin constantly suggests the vicious moral anarchy beneath this surface in a way which is a lot more interesting than most of the work he’s done since. It’s particularly depressing that the filmmaker who made this film into such a moral labyrinth should have been reduced to making right-wing shit like Rules of Engagement with its cut and dried morality and ridiculously schematic narrative. A more probing and intellectual director might have made To Live and Die In LA into a self-consciously serious study of immorality and the destruction of the self and it would have fallen apart because it’s not the kind of material which stands up to much thought. But at the level which Friedkin treats it, it’s enough to make one hell of a good thriller. Friedkin’s trademark use of real locations is at its very best here and on a par with his work on The French Connection and the central car chase is probably even better than the more famous one in his earlier film. A brilliantly staged collection of near-misses, cartoon style escapes and razor’s edge manoeuvres, the chase could hardly be any better and it’s edited just enough to make it work without cutting the life out of it, in the way that Michael Bay does in The Rock and Bad Boys 2. Mention should be made at this point of the stunt co-ordinator Buddy Joe Hooker who choreographed the chase and Bud Smith who edited it. The authenticity that Friedkin brings to the film is perhaps best seen in the fascinating scene where we see Masters going about his work in riveting detail.
It’s the drive and sheer force of Richard Chance that makes him an interesting character and William Petersen, in his first major film role, does an awful lot to turn him into a riveting hero who isn’t particularly sympathetic but doesn’t care whether we like him or not. This is seen in the way he treats his girlfriend Ruth (Fleugel) and a great scene where he explodes at his partner saying “You ain’t shit on the street”. Chance is unusual because Petersen is willing to go to the edge with a portrayal of a driven and determined man who is morally compromised and knows it. He infects all around him with both his obsession to catch Masters and it’s really quite frightening. Petersen has given other good screen performances – he was equally good in Manhunter and films as varied as Fear and The Contender - but he’s never had quite this impact since. He works very well with John Pankow and the two are convincing as working men who are friends because of the job, despite the fact that they don’t much like each other. Pankow, an actor who seems to have faded from view after some promising early work, is great as the weasely and not very trustworthy Vukovich – all too willing to sell-out his increasingly demented partner if it might give him an edge. His bewildered panic during the chase – not all of it put on – and his stylish appearance right at the end of the film when he seems to ‘become’ Chance are totally convincing. Willem Dafoe’s Masters is a fine villain who isn’t a stereotyped evil genius and there are lovely bits from John Turturro, Dean Stockwell and the cherishable Steve James.
It has been claimed that the film now looks very dated. In a sense, this is true but I don’t think it should be necessarily regarded as a bad thing. It is obviously set in a very specific place and time – and times and places have seldom been as idiosyncratic as LA in the mid-1980s. Everything about the film places it – the fashions, the cars, the music – but this is rather endearing rather than annoying and instantly nostalgic for anyone who remembers living through those years. In particular, the music score just screams 1985 – Wang Chung were instantly dated, even by the time the film came out in Britain in the spring of 1986 – but that’s part of the film’s charm.
To Live and Die In LA is an extremely violent film but, for once, I think it’s violent for the right reasons. Friedkin is dealing with a brutal world and his use of violence is gritty and realistic. People really do die horribly here – they explode, are immolated, get shot point-blank in the face – and the camera rarely shrinks from the sight of the death. I think it’s entirely right to do this myself and I don’t think it’s gratuitous. The camera rarely dwells on the violence but it’s presented in a matter of fact way which is disturbing and memorable. These moments of horrible brutality break into the stylish look of the film and reinforce the central themes. Nothing can be relied upon in this world. Women turn out to be men, good guys behave like bad guys, people are not who they claim to be, partners betray each other, money could be real or fake, and death comes when you least expect it. The ending, as ironic and pessimistic as you could possibly want, is uncompromising and a triumph for intelligence over Hollywood schmaltz. It’s the final stroke of genius and it brings the themes of the film together. I doubt Friedkin will ever make another one which is quite as effective.
Considering how eagerly awaited the DVD release of To Live and Die In LA has been, it would have been a great shame if MGM had cocked it up. Thankfully, they haven’t, despite certain misgivings, and this is a good Special Edition.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It has to be said that it does look like a film from 18 years ago and that it would have benefited from a proper restoration. The colours seem a little washed out in places and there is a softness to the image which seems excessive, even given the deliberate haze through which some of the film was shot. Some print damage and artifacting are evident throughout. This is, however, certainly watchable and a vast improvement on my old Vestron VHS copy. It’s just a shame that such a significant release hasn’t had as much loving care expended on it as it deserves.
The soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the original Dolby Stereo recording. It’s an excellent track with involving surround channels, clear dialogue and a splendidly effective rendering of the pounding music score. Turn this up, open the windows, slip into an offensive shirt, down a bottle of beer and pretend that it’s 1985.
The extras, for a change, are all worthwhile. There’s no two disc filler here, just a nice selection of material which enhances the film. The main extra, an audio commentary from William Friedkin, is a very good one indeed. Friedkin’s recent commentary for his rejigged version of The Exorcist was monotonous and surplus to requirements as he plodded through descriptions of what was happening on screen. Here, he states upfront that he isn’t going to be scene specific and as a result he manages to be fascinating for the length of the film. He discusses the actors, the background to the film, the novel it’s based on and the contacts he had with real life criminals which resulted in the authenticity of the finished product.
We also get a half hour making-of documentary which goes over much of the same ground but contains ample interviews with the cast and some of the filmmakers. There’s one great story about the propmaster here which I won’t spoil. Also included is the alternative ending which was shot when the distributors got cold feet about the negativity of the film’s conclusion. It’s truly appalling and I’m very glad it didn’t get put into the film. You get the chance to watch this either on its own or with a brief introduction from Friedkin and the cast. The same is true of a brief but interesting deleted scene between Vukovich and his ex-wife. The video quality of the latter is dreadful but it’s still a very worthwhile inclusion. Also present are a stills gallery and a selection of trailers; theatrical and teaser trailers for this film, La Femme Nikita, Fargo and Dark Blue.
There are 32 chapter stops and nicely designed menus backed by the soundtrack music. The film is subtitled in English but the extra features are not.
I thoroughly recommend To Live and Die In LA to anyone who likes intelligent and unusual thrillers and I guarantee that the car chase will have you on the edge of your seat. The DVD is generally good and worth buying, but it’s a shame that the picture quality isn’t quite as impressive as it could have been.