By 1985, William Friedkin had effectively burned all of his bridges in Hollywood with a succession of underperformers that included Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), and Deal of the Century (1983). With nothing left to lose, he returned back to the kind of film that made his reputation: a gritty, police procedural like The French Connection (1974). He made To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), the west coast answer to The French Connection, a slick, stylish nihilistic thriller that immersed itself in the world of counterfeiting. Made at the same time as Miami Vice was becoming a cultural phenomenon on television, Friedkin’s film is the best Michael Mann film not made by Mann. Like his films, To Live and Die in L.A. is obsessed with the lives and careers of elite cops and criminals. It takes a fascinating look at the minutia of how the cops go about catching crooks and how the crooks ply their trade with both sides employing ruthless methods.
Audiences in 1985 weren’t ready for Friedkin’s world of unsympathetic protagonists and even nastier antagonists. When it was released in theaters, the film failed to connect with a mainstream audience that was repulsed by its amoral, unlikable characters and downbeat, nihilistic ending. What did people expect from the same man who brought them the equally uncompromising The French Connection? Despite equally uncompromising films like King of New York (1990) and television shows like The Shield, To Live and Die in L.A. is still something of a freakish anomaly, one that its director has yet to equal.
Right from the get-go and in very Mann-like fashion, Friedkin introduces the film’s protagonist and antagonist at work. Richard Chance (William Petersen) is a Secret Service agent that, along with his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), stops a terrorist from blowing up the President of the United States. Chance is the proverbial thrill-seeking cowboy, an adrenaline junky that gets his kicks in his spare time base-jumping off bridges. Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is a master counterfeiter, the Da Vinci of funny money and we see him go through the various steps of how he plies his trade in an engrossing montage. And when he’s not doing that, Masters creates abstract paintings and then burns them up afterwards.
Initially, the film hits you up with some of the oldest clichés in the book: the loose cannon cop and his older partner only days away from retirement (he even says at one point, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”). You think, oh man, this is going to be one of those films but then after Chance’s partner is killed by Masters, he’s assigned a new partner by the name of John Vukovich (John Pankow). Right from the start Chance lays down the ground rules: “I’m gonna bag Masters and I don’t give a shit how I’m going to do it.” All bets are off and Friedkin never looks back as he proceeds to turn all of the genre conventions on their head or present them in such a dynamic and exciting way that you don’t mind.
In some respects, To Live and Die in L.A. is the photo negative of The French Connection. While the latter is set during the cold wintery months in New York City, the former takes place in the sun-burnt streets of Los Angeles. With each film, Friedkin expertly captures the unique geography of both cities. Where New York is all vertical buildings and has a closed-in feel, L.A. is all open spaces and horizontal landscapes. He wastes no time immersing us in the sights and sounds of the cities with an uber montage of locales, accompanied by the very Hollywood New Wave sounds of Wang Chung. It’s like Friedkin made a list of every establishing shot used in L.A. films and then proceeded to avoid repeating them at all costs while still presenting an effective view of the city so that you feel it.
Like with The French Connection, Friedkin punctuates To Live and Die in L.A. with the occasional chase sequence but unlike a lot of action films they are integral to and drive the plot forward. For example, early on Chance chases one of Masters’ flunkies (a wonderfully slimy John Turturro) through a busy airport and this provides our heroes with their first lead on the counterfeiter’s operation. I was struck by this sequence and another foot chase (featuring Gary Cole, briefly) at how in these scenes the actors are really hoofin’ it. There’s none of this Hollywood bullshit where you see actors half-heartedly running. William Petersen is flat out running his ass off in these scenes, which is not just impressive to see but adds to the film’s authenticity.
Not content with having created one of the best car chase sequences ever committed to film, in The French Connection, Friedkin orchestrates To Live and Die in L.A.’s show-stopping chase sequence where Chance and Vukovich are pursued by a slew of gunmen in cars. It starts off dangerous and exciting and quickly shifts gears into a hellish, white-knuckled intense ride that truly has to be seen to be believed. Friedkin actually manages to top what he did in The French Connection by upping the scale (i.e. the number of cars, duration, etc.). The thing you notice right away is that no music plays over this sequence, just the sound of the engines of the cars and the protagonists freaking out. If you haven’t thought that Chance is certifiably batshit crazy by now then this scene will do it. Friedkin inserts reaction shots of a determined-looking Chance and a sweaty Vukovich on the verge of losing his mind – it is these shots that help make this sequence so tense and exciting because we can clearly see how what is happening is affecting these guys. Even though it defies any kind of rational logic, it is still one hell of an action set piece with the cars as characters, chewing up the scenery.
Done early in his career (he had a cameo in Mann’s Thief previously), William Petersen is not afraid to play an unlikable character. When we first meet Chance he’s a semi-respectable risk-taker but as the film progresses it becomes readily apparent that he doesn’t care about anyone and anything else except nailing Masters and avenging the death of his partner. He has a female informant (Darlanne Fluegel) that gives him tips and has sex with on a semi-regular basis. Her only value to him is for information and sex. He has outright contempt for authority and treats his partner like crap. Petersen fully commits to the character and brings an intensity that would also be evident in his next film, Manhunter (1986). In some respects, Chance is actually worse than Masters. At least, he has his own code that he adheres to, while Chance will do anything no matter how illegal to achieve his goal. There is a kamikaze-like air to Chance, like he has some kind of suicidal death wish. He pushes himself and those around him to the limit. Even though his personal life is staring him in his face it’s still irrelevant. He wants to exist on a different plane of existence than everyone else. His personal life is just a distraction to him.
Fresh from his bad guy role in Streets of Fire (1984), Willem Dafoe plays a different kind of sociopath in To Live and Die in L.A. Masters shows little to no emotion and Dafoe gives him a whiff of pretension, like he knowingly thinks of himself as some kind of artist but really he’s a sadistic crook who’s all about making money both real and fake. Dafoe brings the right amount of cold detachment to his character. Masters is an efficient criminal who perfectly internalizes his emotions making him incredibly hard to read — ideal for his chosen profession. The irony is that he is ultimately consumed by obsessions – literally and figuratively.
Director William Friedkin was given former Secret Service agent and author Gerald Petievich’s novel, To Live and Die in L.A., in manuscript form. While reading it, the filmmaker found himself drawn to the fact that “Petievich created these characters with feet of clay, and he’s one of them.” Once Friedkin struck a deal for the film rights to the book, Petievich was investigated by his direct rival for an impending office promotion and felt that there was, “a lot of resentment against me for making the movie,” and “some animosity against me in the Secret Service” by the agent in the Los Angeles field office who suddenly resigned a few weeks after initiating the investigation.
The screenplay took the basic plot, characters and much of the dialogue from Petievich’s novel but Friedkin added the opening terrorist sequence, the car chase and clearer and earlier focus on the cat and mouse game between Chance and Masters. Petievich says that Friedkin wrote a number of scenes but when there was a new scene or a story that needed to be changed he wrote it. The director admits that the writer created the characters and the situations and that he used a lot of the book’s dialogue but that he wrote the script and not Petievich.
SLM Productions, a tribunal of financiers, worked with Friedkin on a ten-picture, $100 million deal with 20th Century Fox, but when the studio was purchased by Rupert Murdoch one of the financiers pulled the deal and took it to MGM. After all the dust settled, Friedkin was given an $8 million budget to work with and this forced him to realize that To Live and Die in L.A. would have no movie stars in it. William Petersen was acting in Canada when he was asked to fly to New York City and meet with Friedkin. Half a page into his reading, the director told him he had the job. Petersen called fellow Chicago actor John Pankow and told him about the film. He brought Pankow to Friedkin’s apartment the next day and recommended him for the role of Vukovich.
For the money-making sequences, Friedkin consulted actual counterfeiters who had done time in prison with the film’s “consultant” actually doing the shots that did not show actor Willem Dafoe on camera even though he admitted to learning how to actually print money in preparation for his role. In fact, the son of one of the crew members tried to use some of the prop money to buy candy at a local store and was busted. Friedkin screened a workprint of To Live and Die in L.A. for three FBI agents from Washington, D.C. and they interviewed 12-15 crew members. The director even offered to show the film to the Secretary of the Treasury and take out anything that was a danger to national security. That was the last the production heard from the government.
As he did with The French Connection, Friedkin shot everything on location and worked very fast, often using the first take so as to give a sense of immediacy. He was not crazy about letting his actors rehearse and instead created situations where the actors thought they were rehearsing but actually the cameras were rolling. He allowed Petersen and actress Darlanne Fleugel devise their own blocking and then told cinematographer Robby Muller, “Just shoot them. Try and keep them in the frame. If they’re not in the frame, they’re not in the movie. That’s their problem.” An example of this is the scene where Chance visits Ruthie at the bar where she works. As he did with The French Connection, Friedkin wasn’t afraid to take chances during filming. For example, the scene where Chance runs along the top of the dividers between the airport terminal’s moving sidewalks was done without the airport police’s permission. This was mainly for the actor’s safety as the airport’s insurance would not have covered him had he been hurt. Petersen told Friedkin that they should do the stunt anyway and so the director staged it as a rehearsal but had the cameras rolling. Not surprisingly, this angered airport officials and got the production in hot water.
The film’s exciting wrong-way freeway chase had its genesis on February 25, 1963 when Friedkin was driving home from a wedding in Chicago. He fell asleep at the wheel of his vehicle and woke up in the wrong lane with oncoming traffic heading straight at him. He swerved back to his side of the road and for the next 20 years wondered how he was going to use it in a film. At the time of filming it, Friedkin was working with a stripped down crew and he told stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker that if they couldn’t top the car chase in The French Connection then he wouldn’t use it. Interestingly, Petersen did a lot of his own driving, which would explain Pankow’s stressed out reactions, which were genuine. The chase took 22 days to shoot including three weekends where sections of the Long Beach Freeway were closed for four hours at a time to allow the crew to stage the chaotic chase.
In regards to the film’s infamous ending, as early as the day he cast Petersen, Friedkin thought about killing off Chance towards the end of the film, but according to editor Bud Smith, Vukovich was supposed to be the one who got killed. Friedkin approached Smith and told him about his ending. The executives at SLM Productions were divided with half wanting Chance to die and the other for him to live. To pacify them, Friedkin and second unit cinematographer Robert Yeoman shot an alternate ending with Petersen and Pankow. The director previewed it and then cut it out of the film.
After recording their first album, Wang Chung felt pressured to write commercial music. They asked their manager to look for soundtrack work and he came back with an offer from Friedkin. After he heard and enjoyed “Wait” off their 1984 album Points on the Curve, Friedkin wanted to have Wang Chung score To Live and Die in L.A. In particular, it was “the element of drama and tension” that he wanted in his film, according to the band’s lead singer Jack Hues. The band didn’t want to record a conventional soundtrack and Friedkin was willing to give them that creative freedom. He asked them to write and record 90 minutes of orchestral music despite not having seen any footage. They wrote the music and spent two weeks recording it. The band created a large instrumental piece called, “City of Angels,” and other cues grew out of it. They also wrote separate songs, like “Wake Up, Stop Dreaming” after most of the instrumental work was complete. After seeing a rough cut of the film with their music integrated, the band realized that a title song was missing and wrote “To Live and Die in L.A.”
Not surprisingly, To Live and Die in L.A. received mixed to negative reviews. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Today, in the dazzling, superficial style that Mr. Friedkin has so thoroughly mastered, it's the car chases and shootouts and eye-catching settings that are truly the heart of the matter.” In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, "To Live and Die in L.A. will live briefly and die quickly in L.A., where God hath no wrath like a studio executive with bad grosses. Then again, perhaps it's unfair to hold this overheated and recklessly violent movie to the high standard established by Starsky and Hutch.” Time magazine didn’t like its “brutal, bloated car-chase sequence pilfered from Friedkin's nifty The French Connection", and called it "a fetid movie hybrid: Miami Vile.”
However, Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and wrote, "[T]he movie is also first-rate. The direction is the key. Friedkin has made some good movies ... and some bad ones. This is his comeback, showing the depth and skill of the early pictures.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “Shot with gritty flamboyance by Robby Muller, cast with a fine eye for fresh, tough-guy faces, To Live and Die in L.A. may be fake savage, but it's fun.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Pity poor Los Angeles: first the San Andreas fault and now this. The thing about it is, To Live and Die in L.A., for all its amorality and downright immorality, is a cracker-jack thriller, tense and exciting and unpredictable, and more grimy fun than any moralist will want it to be.”
After a lull in his filmmaking career, Friedkin came back with a vengeance with To Live and Die in L.A. He created an intense, harder-edged and visceral crime thriller that is of its time and out of time. The style and music are pure 1980s but the nihilism is reminiscent of the 1970s. Sure, the screenplay is riddled with clichés — the loose cannon agent and the partner who is killed only days before he retires — but Friedkin makes it all seem fresh and exciting because he believes in the material completely and goes for it all the way down the line. To Live and Die in L.A. was William Friedkin’s last great film. He has shown the occasional glimmer of brilliance (most notably with The Hunted) but has failed to deliver anything on the level of his 1985 film. However, his influence can be felt in films, like Narc (2003), which present a gritty world filled with morally questionable characters.
For more on this film, check out John Kenneth Muir's awesome take on the film and Jeremy Richey's tribute to it.