POPCORN REEL FILM APPRECIATION: "TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A." (1985)


John Pankow (left) as U.S. Secret Service Agent John Vukovich and William Petersen as U.S. Secret Service Agent Richard Chance in "To Live And Die In L.A.", directed by William Friedkin and released in 1985.  Today, 23 years later, the film is still as stunning and original as ever.  (Screen shot photo by Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com via MGM/UA)

Twenty-Three Years Later, The Brilliance of "To Live And Die In L.A." Remains

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
October 13, 2008

As fearless as its flawed, hotheaded lead protagonist (played by William Petersen, who would go on to become the chief forensics investigator on the television series "CSI") and as unexpected a film as any genre movie ever, "To Live And Die In L.A." is full of foreshadowing, vice, sexual energy, full frontal nudity and graphic gun violence, mostly of victims being shot in the head. 

These aren't the reasons, however, why "To Live And Die In L.A." holds up as such a good film more than two decades after its initial release in 1985. 

William Friedkin's vibrant crime and corruption drama is so good and clever because it violates the audience's expectations at almost every turn, right up until the very end, even after the final moment of the end credits.

There is a glitz, luridness and melancholy that frames the suddenness of this sharp, glossy film.  There's an obvious trace of the 1980's here -- after all, it was shot in that decade -- but "To Live And Die In L.A." is timeless and unique in its audacity and boldness to push cinematic conventionalism over the cliff and into the dustbins of history, in the same way Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" did in 1960.  Mr. Friedkin's film presents a very realistic underbelly of Los Angeles.  It's not remotely like the Los Angeles that Randy Newman once sang so lovingly of. 

You'll never see the famed Hollywood sign in "To Live And Die In L.A.", nor will you see many palm trees.

Although the opening title sequence shows a couple of palms trees, they are bathed in a hellish orange-red sunrise.  The title graphics contain a palm tree but it is colored slick crimson red, suggesting violence and grim portent.  The title graphics are astutely rendered over a shot of a scrap metal yard of abandoned cars -- the most symbolic vision of the film -- Los Angeles as the car culture city with dead skulls, millions of drivers in a random meeting with death on the freeway, a cemetery of scrap metal.  A city of dead souls, not a city of angels.

Just when you think you know where this film is going you are proven to be dead wrong -- literally.

"To Live And Die In L.A." tracks a duo of Secret Service agents who break the law to stop a counterfeit money ring led by Los Angeles' artist Rick Masters (played by a fresh-faced Willem Dafoe), a ruthless criminal who proves that the color of money isn't green, but red.

Dead red.

The film's soundtrack is dominated by 1980's pop band Wang Chung, who did the film's seminal instrumental tune "City Of The Angels", which is a recurring theme throughout.  The band's songs "Wait", "Dance Hall Days" and the sunny but ironic "To Live And Die In L.A.", as well as numerous others, appear in the film.


The film's opening credit title.  (Screen shot photo by Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com via MGM/UA)

Mr. Friedkin, the director of such films as "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection", reprises an exciting, even more hair-raising version of a car chase from the latter film in "To Live And Die In L.A.", featuring William Petersen as the impulsive Secret Service Agent Richard Chance driving with reckless abandon through chaos on a busy L.A. freeway, with his shaky partner John Vukovich (played by John Pankow) in the backseat, a simpering officer of the law if ever there was one.

The film's tone is a forerunner to the television series "Miami Vice", but without the romanticism of the city it chronicles.  Setting the tone for, and released ten years before Michael Mann's classic film "Heat", which looks at Los Angeles and its cops and criminals mostly at night, "To Live And Die In L.A." gives women a far more crucial role in the action and surrounding events driving its narrative than "Heat" does with its women characters, even if Mr. Mann's film gives its women more substantive dialogue and greater self-advocacy. 

(Another film directed by Mr. Mann, "Thief", released two years before Mr. Friedkin's L.A. film, shows shrewdness and sophistication, although with far fewer abrupt turns.)

Stylistically, "To Live And Die In L.A."'s cinematography (by Robby Muller) suggests that the film is seen through the eyes of its criminal Rick Masters, the androgynous upscale artist, with its tones of bright reds and greens, a stop-go contrast and conflict.  The film's other motifs -- specifically wardrobe shifts, are shrewdly calibrated in the changes of clothing that occur with Mr. Petersen and Mr. Pankow's attire.

On the other hand, the unpredictability of the film's events suggest that "To Live And Die In L.A." is being seen through the eyes the gambling, free-wheeling and unconventional approach of the impulsive Chance, a name that Mr. Peterson's character isn't given by just any old accident.

"To Live And Die In L.A.", which for some may feel like a B-movie, is a multi-themed, multi-faceted film full of twists and turns, and is definitely worth watching again.  It has recently shown on one of Showtime's numerous cable television networks and is available in a special edition DVD, which was released in 2003.

The film also stars Dean Stockwell, John Turturro, Debra Feuer, Robert Downey, Snr., Darlanne Fluegel, Michael Greene, Jane Leeves (of "Frazier") and Steve James. 

"To Live And Die In L.A." is based on the novel by Gerald Petievich and the film's screenplay is written by Mr. Petievich and Mr. Friedkin.  The film will be shown on Showtime Cable on in the U.S. this Thursday during the early morning.  Check the Showtime website for local listings this week.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  PopcornReel.com.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.
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