To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

The poster says it all.

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.

What balls this took to make right under the noses of Hollywood. In a  deliberately dark styled piece of work, William Friedkin paints a picture of humanity that is so vile and so corrupt that you begin to question if it is even worth living in such a diseased world.

It’s as if all of the action movies of the 1980’s have their moral center stripped away. Now the heroes go all the way in order to nail the bad guy. Here in the best of all of them, William Friedkin makes his other unquestionable masterpiece, revisiting the themes of The French Connection (1971) and changing the locale to The City of Angels right in the midst of it’s love affair with the stylized 80’s pop culture.

It’s lean, mean, lowdown and a hell of a lot more real than either Lethal Weapon or Die Hard. Friedkin made the film independent of a studio with a non-union crew. The production used real locations for every scene, and this eschewing of sound stages gives the film an immediate realism that none of the competition can ever stack up to. Combine this with Friedkin’s knack for kinetic documentary style filmmaking, knowledge of the streets of East L.A., and filming of rehearsals as single takes; and you get this timeless slice of slick burning emptiness. No wonder it was a box office failure and completely forgotten by the public.

Unlike an action film, To Live and Die in L.A. never feels scripted and the performances seem real as we watch like a fly on the wall. The image is gritty and grimy, full of earthy browns and yellows to match the hazy burned out backstreets of L.A.. To most, this might seem too stylized, but once you’ve been to L.A. you get it within five minutes of touching the ground. It’s really this desperate all the time. There is this ever-present air of adrenaline watered down with all the distractions of wealth.

Watching the film today, it seems as if every 80’s action cliche we’ve come to know ad love over the years began here. Right down to the retiring partner who says “I’m too old for this shit”.

We follow a Secret Service agent named Chance (William Petersen) who is trying to nail the flamboyant counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) for murdering his partner.Not that we think for a minute he truly cared about his partner to begin with. Chance is a loner, whose badge has removed him form any sort of normal interaction with reality. He lives for danger, not for the job. He became the job a long time ago. So when Masters kills his partner for getting to close to an operation, Chance sees this as the glove being thrown. It isn’t really about vengeance, it’s personal retribution. Masters has inadvertently one upped Chance and Chance doesn’t like it. So he doesn’t give a damn how he bags him, but he’s gonna bag Masters.

Cue Wang Chung.

The film’s score is composed and performed by 80’s wonders Wang Chung, who layer the film with this dated pounding yet labyrinthe textured sonic landscape that perfectly reflects the universe we find ourselves in. It is as counterfeit as the characters themselves. In fact, I’m listening to the LP as I type this.

The editing slips in a few artistic choices that enhance the film’s impact along with some striking elements of setup and character that cannot go without being noticed. Willem Dafoe is  intoxicatingly cold as Masters, effectively ruling his little band of distributors as a counterfeiter who is primarily an artist focused on hating his own work. at one point he coldly approaches a male dancer in a nightclub and begins to kiss, and only then do we see that it is indeed a woman. (Don’t worry, the same sex stuff comes later.) In these little bits we see just how removed Masters is from any feeling to the extent that he must videotape and watch his own sex while in the process.

Did I mention there’s a car chase in this movie? To Live and Die‘s car chase is the most well remembered aspect of the film, and usually the only sequence people have ever seen. (Much like Bullitt, another film built completely on style that has its other scenes carelessly disregarded.) This chase involves Chance and his new partner Vukovich attempting to escape armed pursuers after a improvised robbery of a criminal goes wrong. They’ve stolen this money to  buy Masters’ services because their department only allows up to a certain amount for undercover payoffs. Is this great or what? Any hew, the two agents tear off in a piece of crap brown Chevy sedan and wind their way through a dirty loading zone, the LA aqueducts, and finally onto the freeway but in the wrong direction. While it may not always be as pedal to the metal as other chases, this one just bursts with tension because you know it isn’t faked and you know that Chance and Vukovich will die at any second.

I still find it odd that Secret Service agents deal with such matters and still protect the President, but then that’s bureaucracy for you.

To Live and Die in L.A. is a criminally underrated masterpiece that uses the “action film” template as an excuse to pick some of the filth from our feet, but just not in Poughkeepsie. This is really a timeless gem that you can revisit with a sick sort of pleasure. I’ve seen it more than 10 times now, and not only does it get better on each viewing it sticks with you like all of the great films. Without a doubt one of the best American films of the decade and a sign that Friedkin’s still got it.

And the ending is just perfect. Dark and sick just like we like it with a slick ballsiness. Take that Miami Vice.


EDITIONS: On DVD, MGM released a single disc special edition that features a nice anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, Dolby 5.1 remix, the silly Alternate ending, a deleted scene, Director commentary and a nice making-of Documentary. The print source is relatively clean, with very minor artifacts at a cheap price making this a must own disc.

This has been bumped to Blu-ray in an unbelievably good looking transfer. Unlike Friedkin’s recent bastardization of The French Connection on Blu-ray, L.A. gets a clean straight transfer that pulls a massive amount of detail and subtlety not seen since the 35mm theatrical presentation. And the soundtrack is presented in a DTS-HD master audio 5.1 lossless track.

Here’s a great DVDBeaver comparison:

Still, couldn’t we get the original Dolby Stereo mix? Oh well, it’s yet another rare LaserDisc for me to track down…


A parting thought: This must be Dr. Niles Crane’s favorite film… 😉


Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, William Friedkin

2 responses to “To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

  1. Andrew McAlister

    Nice work, Spencer. But you stumped me…Niles’ favorite film, why? Haven’t seen TLADILA since its first video release…is DHP in it?


    • It’s an in-joke because if you look closely at the girl who is the dancer and uhh..consort of Masters’ girlfriend, you’ll see it’s Jane Leeves who played Daphne.
      And no I didn’t realize it either until I ran across it on some trivia board.

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