Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #547
Number of Views: One
Release Date: November 1, 1985
Sub-Genre: Action Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $17,300,000
Running Time: 116 minutes
Director: William Friedkin
Producers: Irving H. Levin, Bud S. Smith
Screenplay: William Friedkin, Gerald Petievich
Based on To Live and Die in L.A. by Gerald Petievich
Special Effects: Phil Cory
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Score: Wang Chung
Editing: M. Scott Smith
Studios: New Century Productions, SLM Production Group
Distributors: United Artists, MGM/UA Entertainment Co.
Stars: William L. Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlanne Fluegel, Dean Stockwell, Steve James, Robert Downey Sr., Michael Greene, Christopher Allport, Jack Hoar, Valentin de Vargas, Dwier Brown, Michael Chong, Jacqueline Giroux
Suggested Audio Jukebox
 Wang Chung “To Live and Die in L.A.”
 Wang Chung “City of The Angels”
Of all the places I have visited over the years, Los Angeles is easily one of the ones I most wish to pay a return visit to. It was this fine city where I landed my first acting role and my seven week stay was one that I have nothing but fond recollections of. I made lifelong friends, shared some unforgettable experiences, and returned with a spring in my stride that had eluded me for some time beforehand. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t wish to live there as the climate is a little too intense for a hot-blooded Englishman like myself but, given the option of where to see out my last few days, there are far worse places than L.A. to die.
Indeed, some of my favorite movies have used its sun-bleached setting to tell their tale. Mick Jackson’s L.A. Story is possibly my all-time most repeat viewed film and offers a warm and affectionate tribute to the City of Angels that never fails to bring a smile to my face. William Friedkin’s massively influential eighties action thriller To Live and Die in L.A. is a similarly glorious affair and, in my opinion, one of the finest entries in the crowded genre of the entire decade or any other, come to think of it. Moreover, numerous later works owe their very existence to its stunning cinematic achievement.
The seventies were particularly prosperous for the Chicago-born director. With a masterful output that included the likes of The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer, Hurricane Billy as he would later become known proved himself as one of the most courageous and talented filmmakers on the circuit. Then, in 1980, he suffered a setback that damn near finished him off. Never one to shirk a challenge, his highly controversial insight into the underground S&M and gay scene Cruising certainly turned some heads and not necessarily in the manner in which he had been hoping. Gay rights activists were up in arms and rallied in an attempt to prevent the film from ever being completed and the final cut had almost an hour of footage excised in the fear of being deemed too excessive.
Consequently, Friedkin was left pretty much a spent force and suffered a heart attack soon afterwards that almost killed him. Suddenly, his path forward wasn’t as clear-cut and, it is to his eternal credit that he didn’t throw in the towel altogether. However, if there’s one thing this man can’t ever be accused of then being a quitter would certainly be it. In next to no time, he returned to the hot seat once again, although his 1983 movie Deal of The Century was some way from his finest hour and could easily have spelled the end of a lesser man’s career. His next work would be pivotal to his chances of proving himself still worthy and, when To Live and Die in L.A. checked in two years later, any detractors expected him to fall flat on his face. Chumps!
I wonder how that humble pie tasted when this powerhouse of modern cinema burst onto the scene. In an instant, he turned around any ailing fortunes and the film made a tidy profit during its theatrical run. While certain critics accused it of being amoral and recklessly violent, most agreed that it marked a dominant return to form and made stars of a number of its key players. Willem Dafoe, John Turturro and its largely unknown lead William Petersen all benefited from their involvement. In the history of masterful comebacks, this ranks right up there at the very apex.
It places us in the personal space of ballsy United States Secret Service agent Richard Chance (Petersen) who, when his partner and dear friend Jimmy (Michael Greene) is slain during a one-man bust of a counterfeiting print house just days from receiving his gold watch and carpet slippers, takes the news somewhat less than well. Devastated by Jimmy’s harsh demise, he makes it his life’s work to bring the piece of shit responsible to justice, whatever that will take and by any means at all necessary. Should that mean bending the rules, snapping them clean in half, or chopping them into iddy biddy pieces and pissing on the fallout doesn’t matter a jot.
The rogue in question is Rick Masters (Dafoe), a particularly cool customer and one whom has proved hard to pin down to this point. While Chance’s best pal lies dead on a gurney, Masters is still out there with his licence to print money still very much intact. It’s one thing knowing your enemy and another entirely catching him at his personal laundromat, spin drying his bogus bills. This is no small-time crook and the kind of quick-witted criminal mastermind that can drive a man of compromised scruples to desperate acts. However, Chance isn’t fazed by the challenge and is ready to play as dirty as it takes to put Masters out of commission permanently.
With the department more than a little concerned about his teetering mindset, his superiors deem it necessary to assign him a fresh partner and pronto. Detective John Vukovich (John Pankow) is far more of your by-the-book kind of cop and his presence isn’t one that Chance appreciates initially. However, Vukovich is more than simply a tag-along yes man and has great respect for what his hero has achieved prior to this current blip. The net is closing in and their hard target appears to be playing right into their hands but red tape and politics repeatedly throw undesirable obstacles in their path.
When you consider that Friedkin’s casting was criticized beforehand on account of featuring no recognizable faces, he must’ve felt pretty smug at the way it panned out. Dafoe is off-the-chain as the villain, Turturro perfectly edgy as his slippery associate Carl Cody and Debra Feuer no less brilliant as Chance’s most valued informant and fuck buddy Bianca Torres. Indeed, their volatile relationship lends huge weight to proceedings. There is no place here for lovey dovey hugs and kisses and, instead, their exchanges reveal a far less likeable side to our hero that leaves us questioning whether we should be rooting for him. This, in turn, makes him all the more fascinating as we want to see him succeed but have less and less intention of buying him that celebratory beer afterwards.
Petersen’s performance ranks up there with the very finest and the screenplay from Friedkin and Gerald Petievich (whose novel this is based on) provides him veal of the finest order. His single-mindedness escalates to such a degree that even he doesn’t appear sure of who he is anymore and, in many ways, whatever transpires with Masters plays second fiddle to how and if he will come out the other side of the almighty mess of his own construction.
Meanwhile, the character of Vukovich is every bit as pivotal and, his journey, no less pronounced and unexpected. Pankow proves an incalculable wingman and supplies the ideal counter-balance for his increasingly erratic partner. Never once is he overawed by the monumental company he keeps and, as events unfurl, his part in proceedings becomes far more than simply token. Moreover, Friedkin has no intention of pandering to his audience and the closing act takes us to a place none of us could ever have seen on the horizon. The manner in which our story supplies closure is both refreshingly frank and incredibly rock-ribbed, testament to the kind of brass balls Friedkin carries in his pants.
To Live and Die in L.A. is a success on every conceivable level. Robby Müller’s cinematography is superb, painting San Pedro with a warm orange glow while still managing to feel cold and mechanized, the soundtrack from Wang Chung is gloriously evocative and proves that the trendy eighties synth pop outfit were far more than simply one-hit wonders, and Friedkin somehow trumps his own car chase from The French Connection with a seat of the pants freeway pursuit that ranks amongst the very best ever committed to celluloid.
However, the most satisfying factor is the manner in which Friedkin blurs the lines between good and bad. While Miami Vice was all high-fives and margaritas, here nothing is clear-cut and our hero is little more than a crook with a badge. Regardless of Friedkin’s bleak portrayal of South California at its most unwelcoming, L.A. is no less appealing a destination to me. However, should I elect to return there, then I think I’ll head straight for Steve Martin’s house and leave the cop work for the real deviants.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Easily one of the more violent thrillers of its period, Friedkin thinks nothing of presenting us with close-range shotgun blasts to the face and one in particular will likely still have you reeling once the end credits have rolled. What is more surprising is the generous helpings of nudity. Friedkin rarely has time for such distraction and most of his work up until then had no place for bumping or grinding, but To Live and Die in L.A. provides numerous frank sexual exchanges and Feuer can be my informant anytime.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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