To Live and Die in L.A (1985) – A brutal, stylish and unrelenting thriller from William Friedkin

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After the lukewarm reception to his unsung 1977 masterpiece Sorcerer, director William Friedkin followed it up with two films that proved to be disasters both in terms of critical
acclaim and box-office receipts. But 1985 saw a return to form for Friedkin when he came out with the brutal, stylish and unrelenting thriller To Live and Die In L.A. The film
marked the full-fledged acting debut of a then unknown William Peterson, a theatre actor from Chicago. (An year later, Peterson would go on collaborate with ace American director Michael Mann on his film Manhunter.) One may call it the Los Angeles sibling of Friedkin’s 1971 breakout film, The French Connection.

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When his partner Max is killed by the leader of a counterfeit ring named Rick Masters (played by Willem Dafoe, who was another unknown actor at the time), Secret Service agent Richard Chance takes it upon himself to take him down at all costs. Masters is no ordinary criminal and taking him down won’t be a cakewalk for Chance. Masters is a bit of an artist and a crackpot but also smart and calculating at the same time. He can be extremely loyal to his friends but would not show any hesitation to eliminate them if he thinks that their death is necessary for him to function without any hindrance. One of his
cronies is played by John Torturro in one of his earlier roles.

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There is a scene in which Masters is shown printing the money himself. This was Dafoe actually making the money to lend a sense of authenticity to the scene. Chance is an adrenaline junkie and always tries to push his luck. He would do anything to get near his target. His disregard for the feelings of a female informant (a ravishing Darlanne Fluegel) is despicable. He only wants information and sex from her.  Nothing more, nothing less. His methods are unethical and he is often admonished by his new partner.  One of his questionable decisions lead up to one of the most insane and heated car chases in the history of film. This chase sequence has been regularly featured in most of the “Best Car Chases of All Time” lists. Peterson has an unusual screen presence and he fits the role like a glove.

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I’ve mentioned in my review of Sorcerer that some of Friedkin’s films are essentially existential thrillers that are quite reminiscent of the films of French director Jean-Pierre
Melville. To Live and Die in L.A is no exception. Just like Melville, Friedkin doesn’t sympathize with his characters and every character get what’s coming to them, sometimes
undeservedly. The audience isn’t spared either and we are forbid from feeling any sort of sympathy either. The film is unpredictable and it’s unlike any other crime thrillers I’ve
seen. The violence is sometimes so sudden that it catches us off guard. And then we are compelled to repeatedly examine what we’ve just witnessed and come up with a judgment as to what is right or wrong. The characters are complex and we are unable to figure out the true nature of either one of them.

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The opening sequence sets up the tone of the film perfectly and gives us a small taste of what we are to expect from the rest of the film. I found the stylistic choices Friedkin made here very intriguing. There are some oddly unexpected things that he did here which didn’t make any sense to some people. For example, there are snippets of footage from the later part of the film that he used in the beginning and likewise, some snippets of footage from the beginning showed up in the end. This was a daring attempt from Friedkin and accentuates the strange quality of the narration.  Even though I found this all a bit hard to digest at first, I’ve grown to accept them and I’ve now warmed up to the film completely.

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A majority of the critics reviewed the film positively when it came out but a small share of them as well as the audience wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I think this film had the
disadvantage of being released in the wrong era (or the wrong country for that matter). I was surprised to learn recently that the film was apparently a major influence on Nicolas
Winding Refn’s Drive. Even though it’s remarkably different from other thrillers of the 80s, it’s soul is very much 80s. This review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the
fantastic background score from the English new wave band Wang Chung and also the striking cinematography of Robby Müller.

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