Friday, July 25, 2008

Friedkin Friday: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985): A Game of "Chance"

What? You were expecting a review of Cruising?

Our first lesson in Friedkinism is this: leave your expectations behind. They'll do you absolutely no good. So I've decided - in the spirit of Friedkin's approach to directing actors - to be "spontaneous" and switch the featured film for our inaugural segment.

I'll also occasionally be firing off shot guns while I write this post, just to make certain you're still paying attention (and that I get an authentic reaction from you...).

No, seriously, I just screened To Live and Die in L.A. a few nights ago. First time I've seen it in twenty years, I suppose. And basically, I'm just bowled over because it's so damn good; so damn effective. Considering the quality of To Live and Die in L.A., I realized that it's likely the perfect film to kick off our Friedkin Fest.

And, -- based on the comments left here on the blog and also in my personal e-mail -- it's also the film that immediately jumps out for viewers when you utter the name Friedkin. Therefore, it may be the best "entrance" film into the Friedkin canon; whereas Cruising (1980) -- for all it's deep, lugubrious, morally shadowy commentary -- is going to repel as many readers (and viewers) as it attracts. Not that there's anything wrong with that....

Now on with the show. We'll get to Cruising soon, so don't worry if you've already watched it.

Basically, you can study To Live and Die in L.A. from a variety of angles, and it still emerges as an amazing and deeply-layered crime/action movie. For those who need a reminder, it's the involving story of a reckless young Secret Service agent, Richard Chance (William Peterson) and his obsessional quest to bring down a counterfeiter (and painter) named Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe).

So much is encompassed in the names of these primary characters. "Masters" is indeed a master-of-the-game, a clever, careful criminal who has never been beaten (and who exacts bloody vengeance against those who cross him...), and Chance - of course - is the perfect moniker for a law enforcement official who doesn't adhere to the rules, but (unwisely...) gambles on a sort of "ends justify the means," scorched earth strategy.

As the movie's title indicates, the film is set entirely in a city not of Angels, but of Alienation: 1980s Los Angeles. This film is really, in an important sense, a neo noir, since it clearly fulfills many of the basic criteria of the film noir form. For instance,
we've got location shooting (no studio sets). More importantly, the themes and narrative involve common noir obsessions: a morally questionable protagonist (Chance), who - ensconced in a de-humanizing urban setting -- conducts a criminal investigation in which many, many lines of propriety and decorum are crossed.

The line between justice and revenge, for instance, is clearly breached here. The line between order and chaos too. And most importantly, the line between legality and illegality. The film's ostensible hero, Chance, is an edgy, manic sort and even in his "normal" life he is always treading on the line between life and death. In his off-duty hours, he bungee jumps off a bridge to fulfill his self-destructive desires; to test his sense of immortality. The "rules" of the game, to Chance, have become unimportant. When Masters kills his partner and escapes from justice scot free, Chance determines to get the counterfeiter and doesn't "give a shit" how he does so. He is above the law.

As Chance teeters over the edge, his new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow) grows nervous about his willingness to break the rules. At least at first anyway. At the same time, Chance carries on a loveless sexual relationship with an informant, the desperate but gorgeous Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), who informs him of an upcoming deal that may present an opportunity for Chance to acquire the front money he needs (denied by his prissy superior...) to bring down Masters. And so begins a harrowing spiral into crime, violence, death, not to mention a hair-raising ride on a freeway (in the wrong lane, naturally...).

To express the important leitmotif of decorum or propriety shattered, Friedkin himself breaks a number of screen taboos here. In a sex scene, for instance, he features full-frontal male nudity. That may be something we are more accustomed in 2008; but it was a surprise, certainly, in conservative 1985.

More bluntly, about twenty-minutes before the end of the film, Friedkin includes a plot twist that involves our hero (Chance) and a shotgun blast at point-blank range. We see, straight-faced, in relatively close-shot, something happen to this "hero" that nobody -- and I mean nobody -- could have seen coming. It is so shocking, so bracing, so unexpected and against the grain that the viewer is left stunned, rudderless and absolutely flabbergasted. This action violates a key rule of Hollywood filmmaking; a key facet of movie "decorum," and so we detect how form reflects content in the film. Friedkin doesn't just tell us, he shows us just how dangerous Chance's world is. And he does so in the most visceral, powerful terms imaginable. For a kick, watch the laughable alternate ending available on DVD; the "happy ending" the studio wanted to force down Friedkin's throat. Thankfully, he resisted, and the result is a one-of-a-kind film.

Besides "blurring the lines" between protagonist and antagonist, a common Friedkin conceit (one also featured in Cruising), Friedkin suffuses To Live and Die in L.A. with the theme of (in his own words) a "counterfeit" world. There is no better metropolis in the world in which to make this particular point (about counterfeit emotions, counterfeit relationships and counterfeit politics...) than Los Angeles, a city that thrives on the power of illusion. In the film, it is not merely that the crime of counterfeiting is being examined; but also the "counterfeit" belief that there is a real difference (in this particular scenario) between criminal and law enforcement official, between good and bad. Similarly, Chance's intimate relationship with Ruth is a counterfeit, as the final scene of the film involving Vukovich demonstrates. Even Masters' relationship with his girlfriend is deliberately counterfeit; her real sexual inclinations (again, as the ending suggests...) go towards women, and one woman in particular. But "the appearance" of her interest in men is what is seen; both in sex tapes with Masters; and in her "deployment" (as a diversion) against a lawyer who has betrayed Masters. Nothing is true. Nothing is honest. In one scene, this girlfriend, played by Debra Feuer, even appears briefly to be a man.

This is an entirely appropriate metaphor for To Live and Die in L.A. to explore because in the 1980s (when the film was created) we also had a counterfeit President running the country. Ronald Reagan, lest we forget, was an actor first...a man who practiced his trade in Los Angeles and Hollywood. Furthermore, he was a counterfeit person in the sense that what he pretended to be wasn't what he actually was. A family values president? Well, he was actually the first divorced Commander in Chief in our nation's history. A man of the religious right? Ironically, he didn't attend Church regularly (certainly not to the degree of either Carter or Clinton...). A happy "warrior?" Reagan never went overseas during World War II, and never served in the Army (unlike, John Kerry, for instance...). except in movie. And in fact, Reagan actually lied about his wartime experience, claiming to have photographed the Nazi War Camps after they were liberated. If he did, he did so from Hollywood.

Reagan also claimed he wanted to cut taxes; but he approved the largest tax hike in history up until that time. Reagan similarly said he wanted to shrink the Federal Government, but again, it ballooned under his administration (it took Clinton a "tax and spend" liberal, finally, to shrink it...). You could go on and on, pinpointing the absolutely huge gulf between the counterfeit public image of Reagan (which persists to this day...) and his actual polices and performance in office. It's no surprise then, considering this, that Ronald Reagan is a supporting "player" just below the surface in To Live and Die in L.A. In the very first scene, we hear the Prez talking on the television about "taxation without representation" and the "second American revolution." No doubt he was talking about cutting taxes....while actually raising them.

Later, we see Reagan's photograph hanging prominently on a wall in the background. The Secret Service -- not incidentally the branch in which Chance serves -- in addition to arresting counterfeiters is also tasked with the protection of the President of the United States. This double duty proves the unit's absolute hypocrisy (which is an echo of the amoral Chance's hypocrisy). On one hand, we see the Secret Service stamping out counterfeits (bills); on the other, it enables and safeguards them (Reagan). Thus, we see Friedkin's cultural critique stretches far beyond the confines of L.A., beyond the confines of law and order, and into the realm of the national discourse. It is truly, as the director establishes, a counterfeit world. Nothing is genuine. Not emotion. Not love. Not the law. Not even the political dialogue. An actor is President, for heaven's sake!

No, the only thing that is real, as the film makes death itself. "To live and die."

One cynical facet of this film is that every public official on screen is pretty much either dirty or incompetent. Again this reflects the reality of the 1980s: there were more indicted officials in the Reagan Administration than any in history...a record it holds even after Clinton. To wit, Chance crosses the line, robs an undercover FBI agent, and is responsible for his death. Vukovich is an accessory to the crime, certainly. And Chance's boss in the service is an idiotic, bureaucratic thug. The judge Chance visits (to get a prisoner released...) is surly, harried and unfriendly. I submit that this is part of Friedkin's critique: there's no safe harbor for a "pure" person in this world. If there's even such a thing as a pure person. And that's where the theme of alienation enters the picture. Nobody trusts anyone.

Chance may be fucking Ruth, but he doesn't trust her, and she doesn't trust him. Vukovich proves untrustworthy too, ratting out Chance to a lawyer played by Dean Stockwell. Masters doesn't trust the men he does business with. Chance's superior doesn't trust Chance. Even Chance's original partner doesn't trust Chance enough to include him on a bust. Everybody is alienated from everyone else because all the relationships in the movie, as we've seen, are false; are counterfeit.

I've been asked occasionally why I like and admire Friedkin so much, and the answer rests primarily in his approach, in his style. I deeply respect his insistence on making important moments in his films as real as possible. I can theorize that this arises from his early background in documentaries; but whatever the motive, Friedkin is able to invest critical scenes in the picture with a deep authenticity and reality. He does so, on a simple level, by not calling "cut" when a scene appears to be finished. Seriously.

One of the best scenes in To Live and Die in L.A. involves Chance's illicit abduction of the undercover F.B.I. man under a freeway bridge. Chance grabs the agent's silver briefcase to steal the money inside, but the case is locked. So a desperate Chance then batters the briefcase against a bridge pillar until the lock breaks...and a phone book (but no money!) falls out. According to the "making of" documentary, the shot was supposed to include the actors simply walking to the pillar. That's where they were going to cut. But Friedkin didn't stop the scene, didn't call cut, and everything that came after was - essentially - undirected. Real. It was the actors reacting in the moment to the situation, going with their gut instincts, "knowing the character" and - importantly - Friedkin trusting them enough to respond "in character." and truthfully. It plays as an incredibly tense, and "real" sequence. There's the aura of real life about it, not Hollywood fakery. Chance absolutely goes 'round the bend smashing that brief case against the pillar, and this was all an invention of the in-the-moment Peterson. It's a snapshot of the character's tenacity and obsession.

Friedkin is also able to make the strange and foreign seem absolutely compelling in this never ending quest for accuracy and authenticity. A real-life counterfeiter worked on the film to supervise the scene involving Dafoe's production of fake twenty-dollar bills. Importantly, Friedkin takes us through the entire counterfeiting process in step-by-step chronological fashion, from the mixing of paint to the whirring of machinery spitting out the bills on sheets of metal. It's all vetted in beautiful inserts and close-ups, in a compelling music-video-style montage.

This is, quite simply, something that needn't have been included in a simpler, less elegant film. But again, this accuracy (and attention to detail), is a crucial component in excavating an important and subtle part of Masters' persona. He is so meticulous himself (like Friedkin), that the criminal burns his own paintings, apparently because he thinks they are not any good. He is an artist, and the act of making counterfeit bills appear "perfect" is an art unto itself for him. That may be the reason he does it. What I'm trying to say is that Friedkin's attention to detail makes us understand Masters' obsessions better. It illuminates a side of Masters that is fascinating and unusual. A lesser director may not have made the connection between between Masters the criminal and Masters the artist. But the visualization of Masters' "art" (counterfeiting) establishes that link.

Friedkin is known to many film buffs for the amazing car chase in The French Connection, but he tops himself in To Live and Die in L.A. The chase showcased here is one of the great action sequences in film history, not merely because Friedkin boasts a meticulous eye for detail, but because the chase sequence -- set on the "wrong" lane of a busy highway -- so clearly mirrors Chance's mind-set at that point in the film. Like the car he is driving, Chase is also, shall we say, headed the wrong way: having crossed the dividing line on the road and become a lawbreaker.

We also detect (through close-ups of Peterson's intense eyes...), that this chase and pursuit contributes (and enhances) Chance's (wrong...) sense of immortality. In the act of breaking the law, of being on the edge, he is experiencing "the thrill" akin to the one he gets from bungee jumping. A
trenchant cross-cut from Chase behind-the-wheel to Chase in the act of bungee jumping, cements that connection.

This action scene is fast-paced, brilliantly-constructed, and jaw-dropping in intensity. But the point of it is character enhancing (just like the counterfeiting montage): Chance has become what he hates. He is now just like Masters, breaking the law and loving every minute of his success. Later, we even learn that the people chasing Chance were not thugs, but FBI agents. Chance merely shrugs it off. The lines have been blurred.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't discuss at least a little the brilliant musical score that underlines and enhances the action of To Live and Die in L.A. It is composed and performed by the British New Wave band Wang Chung. How's that for a blast from the past? One might snicker in remembrance of Wang Chung and that time in the 1980s, but the group has contributed a heart-pounding yet simultaneously heart-less sound to accompany Friedkin's images. The music is part of the counterfeit world in the sense that it is synthetic, or unnatural. A beat that never stops; a push that never stops pushing. It's like Chance's heart-beat, his need for one more thrill, never stopping, never slowing down.

The 1980s are often called the decade of "greed is good," a catchphrase which is just another way of saying that the ends justify the means. To Live and Die in L.A., set in a "counterfeit world" of false emotions and false intimacy, is a film about characters who live -- and die -- by that edict. It's an unromantic, unglamorous view of the Reagan Age, but one crafted with genius and provocative flair. This is Friedkin at the absolute top of his game, and one of the top ten films of the 1980s (and about the 1980s).


  1. I saw this film for the first time last year. Maybe my expectations were too high, but it just didn't live up to the hype. Your review makes me want to give it another day in court. I'm looking forward to your review of "Sorcerer." Like Jim, I actually prefer it to "The Wages of Fear."

  2. Nice review, John. You basically hit most of the points that made me love the film so much. Part of my interest was in comparing it to films by the other master of crime sagas from that era (no, not Scorsese or Coppola)...Michael Mann. I think of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. as being in the same realm as something like HEAT (1995). What you get is an oscillation between pointed realism (truth to character, to the spontaneity of life, to the complexity of choice) and incredible stylization (in TO LIVE's case and in the case of MIAMI VICE and/or MANHUNTER, the selective presentation of some of the excesses of the era, mixed with strongly symbolic color palates and a fantastic capacity to capture the living, sometimes sinister quality of the city).

    I really respect Defoe's acting in this mode, as a villain not bounded by comic book hyperbole. Peterson is perfect as a loose cannon ostensibly on the side of good.

    I also just managed to get a copy of the excellent Wang Chung soundtrack. I never thought I'd be using the last few words of that last sentence in tandem, but it is a great document and really makes the movie work.

  3. Anonymous2:35 PM

    It's funny that Kevin brings up the Michael Mann. I've always sort of associated To Live with Mann's work as well. And I've strongly associated To Live with Manhunter, likely due to the presence of Petersen. I think To Live is somewhat of a Friedkin riff on Mann. Wang Chung instead of Jan Hammer, just a tad less colorful, and a shared leading man. Great stuff all around.

    Another interesting tidbit off Friedkin's commentary is how he encouraged Petersen to flagrantly violate the airport rules in an early chase scene (and hope that the authorities wouldn't bust them). What a character.

  4. If memory serves, Mann actually sued Friedkin over "To Live and Die in L.A.," saying that Friedkin stole his idea for "Miami Vice"...

  5. John, you hit the nail on the head, buddy! Great analysis. Friedken is one of America's great directors, and very under appreciated....It seems he has fallen off the radar in a sense, unlike Scorsese who has become the darling of aging Hollywood. Anyway, great POV!

  6. This is a great film and as others have noted contains strong stylistic echoes of Michael Mann's work. This is definitely Friedkin's last truly great film - altho, I think THE HUNTED has its moments.

  7. 1985 was indeed a very good year for William Peterson. It is a wonder why he never became a major film star, he certainly has the screen presence and charisma.

    I do think that though the film certainly looks and sounds like a Michael Mann film. Mann's characters seem less obsessive than Friedkin's, (maybe with the exception of Manhunter) Popeye Doyle and Chance seem to take law enforcement more personal, while Mann's characters, on the other hand seem to treat crime and law enforcement more businesslike, as a profession (think Heat).


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