Sunday, August 08, 2010

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

After 25 years I revisited To Live and Die In L.A. (1985), William Friedkin's cynical, fatalistic, hardboiled and high-energy crime noir about corruption and survival in the city of no angels. The script is literate, the characters are believable, the performances are brutally honest, the unpredictable twists keep coming, the action never stops, and the car chase is shot for real without any fake process. The pace is fast. In fact this film really hustles. Friedkin, who directed The French Connection doesn't need to shake the camera or hyper cut to thrill us because what he puts in the frame is relentless and thrilling.

The real star of the film is Robby Muller's burnished photography of Los Angeles and environs.

William L. Peterson in his debut plays a Secret Service agent whose partner Max is murdered by counterfeiter Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is an affluent artist who dabbles in money-printing on the side and takes care of his friends, a kind of prince of the city who can handle any situation he's in. Peterson is determined to "bag" Dafoe no matter the cost. If it weren't for the fact that Dafoe is usually one step ahead, they'd be hard to tell apart. Peterson's Fed is an amoral jerk addicted to his own adrenaline rush. He can't wait to take risks and push his luck. If other people get in the way, tough. Whenever his new partner John Pankow backs off, Peterson shames him into breaking the law to get results. When their boss denies them the funds to set-up a sting on Dafoe, Peterson and Pankow decide to act on a tip from an informant and hijack an illegal money-drop to raise the cash to buy Dafoe's counterfeit twenties. The hijack goes wrong, and escalates into one of the screen's classic car chases. Not until roll call the next day do the two Feds find out they intruded into an FBI sting, caused the death of an undercover agent, and narrowly escaped both the FBI and the crooks who chased them. What they don't realize is that their informant was set-up by Dafoe, who will laugh his head off when the two unwitting Feds toss the money-drop into his lap.

Peterson's energy drives the film as much as Dafoe's calculated calm anchors it. The film contrasts Peterson's utter disregard for ethics against Dafoe's concerns for his cronies. Dafoe's concern, however, only goes so far. If he can't save a crony or protect him, he'll hire them dead, or do the killing very efficiently himself. Like Peterson, he sees no boundaries, and both actors communicate the erosion their lifestyles have on their souls. But the character arc belongs to Pankow, who is so slight of build and cast so hard against type that he's either impossible to believe in the role or exactly right for it. By the end, he is transformed into an amoral jerk like the one who trained him. If this were all To Live and Die In L.A. had to offer, it would be sufficient to rate the film as a neo-noir masterpiece to rival The French Connection. But Friedkin has more on his mind.

Comparing the two films reminds me of the old adage that people in New York have lives whereas people in Los Angeles have lifestyles. The Secret Service agents in Los Angeles live and die in a very different culture than the cops in New York City, and Friedkin uses the locale to layer his film with incisive observations of personality and behavior that are calculated to attract and repel us.

Without commentary or making a point of it, Friedkin finds a kink in all the characters who countenance crime. Or perhaps he is saying that crime is the natural outgrowth of their kink. Or perhaps crime is not what interests Friedkin. He stages male camaraderie with a touchy-feely quality intended to hint at more than camaraderie. Sometimes this pre-occupation of Friedkin's strains credulity; for example, when Dafoe and the Feds-disguised-as-buyers are ready to kill each other at the slightest provocation, Friedkin stages their meeting in the unlikeliest circumstance, undressing in a locker room and then sweating through their towels in a steam bath. Talk about overkill. Dafoe burns his paintings and videotapes his lovemaking. His girlfriend, played by tall lanky Debra Feuer, is an androgynous dancer whose masculine dance theater turns him on. During his embrace, she glances across the room to lock eyes with the sweaty girl who shared the stage. Dean Stockwell is a criminal lawyer who plays all sides to his own advantage, with a bias for Dafoe. John Turturro in one of his earliest roles does a memorable turn as a fall guy who sees the worst coming and rushes to meet it. There is a rare glimpse of the late film director Robert Downey -- father of junior / Iron Man -- as the police chief who knows when to look away and when to come down hard. There is also a glimpse of Jane Leeves -- before she became Daphne in the sitcom Frasier -- as the kink dancer whom Dafoe gives as a present to his girlfriend. All these bits and pieces of characterization add up to a fractured and soulless nihilism that endows To Live and Die In L.A. with its emotional impact.

What boils To Live and Die In L.A. harder than the The French Connection is not only in how things go wrong and but in how the women pay. There is a powerful close-up of Debra Feuer at the end when she comes to collect some homemade porn videos from lawyer Dean Stockwell. Dafoe is dead, and the close-up is powerful because Feuer's face shows no emotion. Instead she talks some business, tosses her porn into a big bag, and then gets in the car and drives off with her present. The most interesting scenes are between Peterson and Darlanne Fleugel as his informant. He uses her for sex and for information. She seems to genuinely like him even though at the slightest plea for understanding he threatens to revoke her parole and send her back to the joint. "The same thing that happened to Max could happen to me," she tells him. She wants to stay out of trouble, but he won't let her. When Peterson stares off into the night sky planning his next move, she tells him "The stars are God's eyes. Don't you believe that?" "No I don't," he answers emphatically. There is no poetry in this Secret Service agent, but there is poignancy in Darlanne Fleugel's performance. She walks away with the film. Friedkin decides to close the film on one last act of emotional violence. With Peterson dead, Darlanne Fluegel is packing to leave the city. Pankow tells her he intends to keep her in the same arrangement as Peterson did. Her reaction is stunning. The film ends -- or rather it should have ended -- on her close-up. Friedkin holds for a moment on her stunned expression, and we think the film is going to fade to black, as it should.

Instead, Friedkin does something that makes no sense. He cuts to a previously used shot of Peterson driving up to her house. His character is dead, so why is this shot the last shot in the film? Fade to black, end titles roll, and suddenly we're looking at an "Easter egg" of Peterson in shadowed close-up, wearing his best bruised-dog-in-the-manger expression.* Friedkin holds on Peterson's face until the film stops. What's going on here? As one replays in the mind everything that has gone before one realizes Friedkin turned a narcissistic eye on Peterson over the last two hours. Throughout the film he's been holding on Peterson longer than he should, sometimes until performance turns into posturing. Friedkin can't take his camera / eye off the young star. Not surprisingly, audiences found To Live and Die In L.A. hard to like in 1985. Perhaps it was too sleazy or too much of a downer. More likely audiences did not share Friedkin's obsession with Peterson.

That having been said, To Live and Die In L.A. is a crime film of daring originality that packs an emotional wallop. It is also one of the best action films ever made and one of the top 10 crime films of the neo-noir period.

Personally, I wish the film had ended on the stunning close-up of Darlanne Fluegel. Even the squares get that and are moved by it.

Written by Richard

*this close-up of Peterson reminds me of a similar close-up of Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine CLEMENTINE (1946). As the tubercular Doc Holliday, Mature has just performed a surgery to save a girls life. His head is lit from behind but his face is kept in the dark. What John Ford tells us by keeping the face in the dark is that Doc is dead inside and will be killed soon, like the girl he just operated on.


  1. I love this movie! Great Choice!

  2. I love this film also for all of the reasons you stated so eloquently. I love that Friedkin has the balls to present us with a pretty unlikable protagonist and yet Petersen's natural charisma keeps us interested in what happens to him. I also like how much Friedkin focuses on the city with all kinds of inserts shots to give us a real sense of place. And he doesn't show us the usual, cliched shots of L.A. that we've seen a million times before but instead shows us the seedier side. It took 10 more years with Michael Mann's HEAT for someone else to show us a different side of the city... also a crime thriller!

  3. Love your blog, added it to my blogroll! Great stuff Mac.

  4. Great analysis of a fascinating film. But there is one bit of major fakery in the car chase scene. Friedkin closed off a section of the freeway and had the cars drive on the wrong side of the street - all the cars are on the left instead of the right - thus giving the scene a sense of wrongness that adds to the tension.

  5. I'm surprised that no one has commented on the music for this film and I wish there was an option on the DVD to remove it. For me it nearly negates all the film's positives because the anachronistic score is so intrusive and cheesy. I am fond of this film for the reasons mentioned above, but the soundtrack reeks of the shallowness of the era and too often pulls me out of the narrative. Anybody else?

  6. Thanks for including this film in your series. It's a great example of neo-noir, underrated and way too undeservedly trashed over the years.

  7. Best line in that movie by Peterson to Darlanne, "you want bread, fuck a baker."

  8. I think the ending shot is quite logical, since Peterson's character "lives on" in Pankow. Vuckovic kind of becomes Chance ("you're working for me now").

  9. Just watched it again. Found this great critique because I was wondering about the last shot as well. Funny to watch Peterson and Pankow spin on a turntable in the chase scene, which I have to admit is brilliant.

  10. Actually, I loved both the movie and the soundtrack, in fact, the Wang Chung soundtrack cd is one of my favorite soundtrack albums. Yes, it dates the movie as 80s, but gives it a feeling of time and place - so does base-jumping. The inclusion of "Dance Hall Days", playing at a titty bar, strips any romance from the song.
    Lots of things work well in this movie. One of my favorites!

  11. Hopefully We get couple more films out of Billy before the end of this decade. I think their room for his style movies and Television. Seeing how Hollywood obsessed with franchises made around Superheroes and Toys.

    My Friend always interprets the last shot as possibility that he knew his relationship with his informant would lead to his death. She was definitely a female fatale.


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