To Live and Die in L.A. - Arrow Special Edition Review
Firebrand director William Friedkin has rarely been one for adhering to convention, having delivered two movies back to back in the 1970’s – The Exorcist and The French Connection – which didn’t just break the mould but shattered it into pieces, and although he’s not hit those same stratospheric heights again he came very close in 1985 with this hard-hitting tale of a master counterfeiter versus a determined Secret Service agent. After an opening which is at once strangely prescient and gloriously clichéd, where hotshot agent Richard Chance and his partner take down an Islamic suicide bomber who’s targeting the President of the United States, we segue into the movie proper via a canny title sequence that sets the scene for what’s to follow, showing people doling out fake dollar bills set to the pulsing beat of Wang Chung’s City of The Angels. We’re then introduced to the other major player in the game, artist Rick Masters, first shown burning one of his portraits to highlight his credentials as a tortured soul, and although he thinks he’s a so-so talent with a canvas he knows he’s an excellent forger when it comes to funny money. A game of cat and mouse ensues as Chance pursues Masters using any and all means necessary, the two of them leaving human wreckage strewn in their wake.
Based on the Gerald Petievich novel of the same name, To Live and Die in L.A. is a keenly observed film as it lacks the histrionics of most of its action-oriented ‘80s stablemates. It’s a police procedural seen from refreshingly different angles, exploring in meticulous detail the process involved in producing counterfeit US currency and how it ends up being distributed onto the streets. We also get the law enforcement perspective but from a place where the law takes a backseat to the enforcement, driven by the devil-may-care attitude of a man who sees rules as nothing but guidelines to be ignored when the need arises. While the character of Chance may sound terribly hackneyed on paper, William Petersen’s film debut is as intoxicating as it is frightening, proffering Chance as a complex man with his own skewed moral code and the film teases us with this throughout, as just when we start rooting for him again we get reminded of how repulsive he actually is.
One of the many people caught in Chance's web is parolee Ruth, whom Chance keeps out of prison in exchange for sex and any information she picks up from L.A.'s criminal underworld, played nicely with increasing desperation by Darlanne Fluegel. Another one who falls under his spell is Vukovich, his new partner, who graduates from background player to confidante as Chance’s recklessness spirals out of control and John Pankow plays the somewhat fragile cop who sinks ever deeper into the moral morass, finally ending up in a metaphorical Hell as the movie reaches its fiery climax. On the other side of the line is Willem Dafoe as Masters, projecting an effortlessly cool demeanour as he sets about his work, killing people as dispassionately as he creates his counterfeits, and Debra Feuer plays Bianca, his lover and business partner. In the middle of all of them is Dean Stockwell, cigar permanently in hand, as the pragmatic lawyer Bob Grimes.
Indeed, pragmatism is one of the keys to the entire thematic undercurrent of the film: relationships are continually forged through necessity, not choice, with everybody leaning on somebody else no matter how high or low in the food chain they may be, and the one genuinely 'good' character of the bunch gets killed inside the first reel anyway. Friedkin himself calls it a “counterfeit movie” because nothing is real, the reams of fake paper highlighting the similarly ersatz interactions that the characters have with each other. One could argue then that with such a duplicitous gallery of rogues it’s hard to care for any of them but such is the sheer sexual charisma of the wiry, athletic Chance – one of cinema’s most memorable anti-heroes in this viewer’s opinion – you simply can't take your eyes off him, and the hapless protestations of Vukovich are as endearing as they are pathetic as he grapples with the encroaching darkness. It’s also hard not to feel sorry for Ruth as Chance uses and discards her on an ad hoc basis, and yet she's also having to play the game to survive on the streets. It’s testament to the quality of the writing that even the minor characters feel like they have lives outside of what we see on the screen, always constantly scheming and plotting against each other, and yet the narrative doesn’t feel overly-tangled as a result.
The movie could well have become chronically over-burdened by plot in the wrong hands but Friedkin’s pacing is simply masterful, knowing exactly when and where to speed up and slow down to place the emphasis on certain beats. The prime example is the pulse-pounding car chase that ensues when Chance and Vukovich are on the run from the Feds having unwittingly robbed an undercover agent, with the adrenaline surge of the initial confrontation stretched out over the next few minutes of helter-skelter action on the blacktop in true French Connection style. Friedkin wanted something that was even better than the famed car chase in that film, coming up with all sorts of innovative gags like driving against traffic, jack-knifing lorries and what have you, and while I’m not sure it’s better it’s certainly different and sits rightly in the annals of the all-time great movie chases.
In the audio commentary that's included on this disc Friedkin explains that he never does assembly cuts of his films (assemblies being an initial editorial construction of everything that was shot on a feature film), preferring to edit the piece from scratch as dictated by the needs of the scene and that’s what gives his films their sense of propulsion, there’s rarely a lot of fat to be found and To Live and Die in L.A. is no exception. Friedkin also shot it in a very loose style, allowing for improvisation and trusting his actors to take the scene where they think it should go, even going so far as to roll camera on what the actors thought was a rehearsal only to tell them afterwards he’d got the scene! This gives the performances a certain rough-hewn quality which only heightens the sense of realism even more, along with the visual depiction of L.A.'s seamy underbelly that eschews the city's perceived gloss and glamour for more industrial-looking locations.
This all plays out against a sonic backdrop of Wang Chung’s thoroughly ‘80s score that’s full of catchy electronic beats and melodies, Friedkin specifically seeking out the English popsters to provide the music for his film. Between that and the movie being a hard-boiled ‘80s crime thriller it draws immediate comparison with Michael Mann’s work but the crucial difference is that Friedkin isn’t a director who often draws attention to the medium itself - but when he does, it's designed for maximum impact. Mann’s ostentatious music-video stylings take in blue-drenched widescreen vistas and conspicuous slow-motion sequences, particularly in something like Manhunter (itself an absolutely superb film also starring William Petersen) and the two films couldn’t be more different in that respect with the naturalistic street-level immediacy of Robby Müller’s photography versus Dante Spinotti’s painstakingly composed images, though there are still squirts of brilliantly vivid colour in Müller's aesthetic, particularly the colour red. The violence in Friedkin's film is also rendered extremely bluntly, with lives being casually snuffed out in the duration of a muzzle flash whereas Mann’s outlook is often more balletic and hyper-real. Each style serves its respective master well, but there’s something truly visceral at the heart of To Live and Die in L.A. which ensures that it still kicks like a mule 30-odd years later.
This new UK Special Edition comes courtesy of Arrow Video on a region B locked disc with a DVD copy plus new custom artwork and a booklet. The movie has been restored in 4K from the original 35mm negative with the supervision & ultimate approval of William Friedkin but rest assured, this is no smeary pastel coloured nightmare akin to the 2009 Blu-ray of The French Connection - instead it’s one of the most gorgeously filmic images I have ever seen on home video. Presented in the intended 1.85 aspect (with the original MGM logo, for those who appreciate such things) the detail is astonishingly crisp and the sense of texture is almost three-dimensional, with a variable patina of grain as an ever-present accompaniment but rarely an outright distraction. There’s zero sign of any “grain management” either, but don’t be alarmed by any occasional drops in the sharpness and/or grain as that’s simply the effect of the original optical overlays. This new transfer is so sharp that I spotted a ghostly reflection of a crew member’s face in the shot when Willem Dafoe is looking down directly into camera in the lawyer’s office (“18th century Cameroon. Your taste is in your ass”).
The colour is sensational because it doesn’t fall foul of the modern colourists’ playbook and looks wonderful, with flesh tones displaying a wide array of nuance and a healthy pink glow rather than a dull orangey hue, and the primaries are bolder than ever, like the garish green/red lighting inside the strip club. Contrast is finely balanced, letting us peek into the shadows whilst maintaining an extremely solid black level (with no fading or light leakage out to the edges of the frame) and brighter scenes don’t appear heavily blown out. The image is very clean with no prominent scratches, and there’s just the printed-in dirt on the opticals and some occasional stray white specks (negative dirt) to report.
The compression is exceptional, betraying no hints of any macroblocking, aliasing, banding or any other greeblies even under extreme duress; just the opening shot alone, which slowly fades up from black onto a blood orange sky, would catch out quite a few other distributors these days. There's no undue sharpening anywhere to be seen either. In the interests of fairness it’s worth pointing out that there are instances of vertical jitter in quite a few shots, but it looks like an artefact related to the original acquisition (a slight registration issue or other such problem related to the 35mm pulldown movement inside the camera body itself) which not even this otherwise rock-solid new scan could’ve corrected. That’s not a complaint but an observation, as this new restoration is still deserving of the very highest marks and I honestly don’t think there’s anyone better than Arrow at film restoration and video compression in the world right now.
Audio is presented in both lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and uncompressed LPCM 2.0 flavours. The former is the newer discrete remix whilst the latter appears to be the original Dolby Stereo mix, which decodes very nicely into surround providing you activate the appropriate DSP on your AVR or processor, e.g. Dolby Surround/Pro Logic II or DTS Neural:X/Neo:6. The 5.1 mix is very respectful to the original but then that's often the case with discrete upmixes from Dolby Stereo because the basic surround layout is already there, it just needs a bit of embellishment to create stereo rears and to filter off an LFE channel for the bass.
While the 5.1 mix has a swift hit of bass when called upon, the stereo surrounds resemble a split mono for the most part, offering up very sporadic stereo effects and lacking the kind of wrap-around ambience of modern mixes. That's not unusual by any means, although the 5.1 sounds a touch echoey in the rears whereas the 2.0 (decoded into surround) is smoother and more tightly integrated. Both mixes have a nice spread across the fronts with some good steerage of effects and voices as they traverse the screen. The dialogue quality itself is sometimes hampered by the technology of the time, with the ADR’d speech (and there’s quite a bit of it) sounding more hollow and detached than any live dialogue recordings that were used. The music sounds fabulous however, with a real sense of drive and attack as those glorious synth-pop beats wash over the movie and the 2.0 mix just has the edge over the 5.1 in that respect.
In terms of extras we’ve got a mix of the previous features from MGM’s 2006 Special Edition DVD plus some all-new interviews conducted by US label Shout! Factory, who partnered up with Arrow Video for this release (Shout! are doing the extras, Arrow are doing the restoration work and they’re releasing their own editions on their respective sides of the water). The original 30-minute ‘Making of’ featurette plus the terrible alternate ending and another deleted scene (both playable with/without introductions) are included along with Friedkin’s excellent audio commentary, and the new interviews feature William Petersen in Taking a Chance (20 minutes), Debra Feuer in Renaissance Woman in LA (15m), Dwier Brown in Doctor for a Day (9m), music composers Wang Chung in So in Phase(12m) and Buddy Joe Hooker in Wrong Way: The Stunts (35m).
Petersen and Hooker both feature in the MGM ‘Making of’ so several of their anecdotes are repeated here but they both entertain nonetheless, especially Petersen as he seems to be quite an animated fellow. It’s great to have Debra Feuer share her thoughts as she wasn’t included in the prior documentary, but Dwier Brown was a somewhat odd choice as he’s in the movie for less than twenty seconds (he’s the doctor who tells Chance about Cody’s false ‘daughter’ in the hospital), although he later starred for Friedkin in The Guardian so he shares some of his wider experiences regarding the director in general. The interview with Wang Chung members Nick Feldman and Jack Hues is a nice touch though, as they cover how they got involved in the project and give us their own take on Friedkin, delivered with the kind of self-deprecating wit that us Brits specialise in. The package is rounded off by a stills gallery containing on-set photos, lobby cards and suchlike, plus two trailers (in HD) and a radio spot. The first pressing of the title will also include a booklet with writing by Anne Billson, this was not made available for review.
William Friedkin’s counterfeiting caper still packs a very visceral punch, and this new Special Edition Blu-ray offers up To Live and Die in L.A. with an astoundingly delicious new 4K transfer, solid audio and a decent smattering of extras, old and new. To Arrow Video I can only say two words: you’re beautiful.