To Live and Die in L.A: William Friedkin’s blistering and merciless crime thriller

After the lukewarm reception to his unsung masterpiece Sorcerer, director William Friedkin followed it up with three films that proved to be disasters in terms of both critical acclaim and box-office receipts. (Hey, but I liked Cruising a lot!) However, 1985 saw a major return to form for Friedkin when he came out with the blistering and merciless To Live and Die In L.A. The film marked the full-fledged acting debut of a then unknown William Petersen, a theatre actor from Chicago. (A 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.

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. A young John Turturro plays one of his cronies.

There is a scene showing Masters 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) makes him quite despicable. All he wants from her is information and her body;  nothing more, nothing less. His methods are often unethical. One of his questionable decisions leads to one of the most intense car chases in the history of cinema. 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.

I’ve mentioned in my essay on 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, at times undeservedly. The audience isn’t spared either and we are forbidden from feeling any sort of sympathy either. It’s deliciously unpredictable and very unforgiving. The violence is sometimes so sudden that it catches you off guard. And then we are compelled to examine what we’ve just witnessed and come up with a judgment as to what is right or wrong. The characters are complex and their true nature is hard to figure out.

The opening sequence sets up the tone of the film perfectly giving 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 odd but delightful 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 similarly, 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.

I was surprised to learn recently that the film had been a major influence on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Even though it’s remarkably different from other thrillers of the ’80s, its soul belongs very much to the ’80s. The fantastic background score from the English new wave band Wang Chung is endlessly playable. This is also one of the most gorgeously photographed films ever made. The cinematographer is Robby Müller, who had collaborated on numerous Wim Wenders films.

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