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
Omar P.L. Moore/The
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
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.
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
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
"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.
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