When he made To Live and Die in L.A., William Friedkin was fourteen years removed from The French Connection, his Best Picture–winning 1971 hit. In the years after that movie, which set new standards for the crime drama, he had gone from being one of the golden boys of American cinema to inhabiting what he termed “a gray area” after the undeserved box office failure of his expensive 1977 thriller, Sorcerer; the controversy over his 1980 s&m undercover-cop flick, Cruising; and (ugh) 1983’s Deal of the Century, a Chevy Chase flop that the director pretty much never discusses today.
To Live and Die in L.A., which screens at midnight this Friday and Saturday in the IFC Center’s ongoing “Road Rage” series, returned Friedkin to the crime drama, but his approach was different. As he notes in his excellent memoir, The Friedkin Connection, he “would abandon the gritty macho look” of The French Connection for “something more in the unisex style of Los Angeles in the 1980s.” Wanting a “feminine sensibility” this time, he hired women in key technical roles. Always something of an experimenter when it came to movie scores, Friedkin gave a copy of the script to the new wave band Wang Chung before he shot any footage, and he let the resulting music influence the form and shape of his film.
Still, the subject matter was quite macho: Based loosely on the experiences of a retired Secret Service agent named Gerald Petievich, it follows the efforts of Richard Chance (William Petersen), a go-it-alone, adrenaline-junkie agent, as he seeks to capture a psychotic counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe). Friedkin wanted, as he put it, “to portray the city with no landmarks, no iconic skylines or neighborhoods,” and thus opted for locations such as Slauson Avenue in South Central, Nickerson Gardens in Watts, and, up north, San Luis Obispo’s state prison. The film does share with The French Connection an almost obsessive focus on process: Friedkin and Petievich actually worked with a paroled counterfeiter on the technical details of printing fake money, and the director boasts in his book that he went out after the shoot and spent some of that play dough.
The idea of fakery runs throughout the picture in more profound ways. To Live and Die in L.A. is a movie all about facades. The posturing characters, the synthesized soundtrack, the heavily art-designed frames, the gyms and the strip clubs and the avant-garde dance performances that put bodies on full display — all serve to create a world of whisper-thin surfaces, beautiful and magnetic and unreal. Dafoe’s counterfeiter creates paintings, then takes them out and burns them, watching the fire with a fascinated, dazed look on his face, as if he’s finally witnessing something real. In that sense, his criminal and Petersen’s bungee-jumping, thrill-seeking cop are two sides of the same coin, both desperately looking for something concrete, authentic.
This notion even comes into play during the film’s influential car chase, which is somehow more amazing than the one in The French Connection. Chance and his partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow), find themselves in the middle of a robbery gone horribly wrong; a simple getaway turns into a multi-vehicle war, and the agents’ Chevy Impala speeds the wrong direction on the Terminal Island Freeway and through a massive flood-control channel, with countless other cars behind. Friedkin orchestrates every second of this dazzling sequence with remarkable control, always keeping the direction and placement of the cars perfectly clear without skimping on kinetics or style. My favorite touch: the heavy, terrified breathing of Vukovich on the soundtrack as he huddles in the back seat of the car, an effect that heightens both the scene’s danger and its dreaminess. (For years, I recalled a dialogue exchange during the chase that is nowhere to be found in the actual movie: “Is this really happening?” “Yes, it’s really happening!” Did I imagine it? Who knows! Truth is an elusive concept in this film.)
To Live and Die in L.A. also features a number of unforgettable turns from actors on the cusp of fame. This was Petersen’s first starring role — and it would have been his feature-film debut, were it not for a brief appearance in Michael Mann’s Thief four years earlier. (Mann would cast him as the lead in Manhunter in 1986.) It was Dafoe’s crazed performance here that inspired Martin Scorsese to cast him as Jesus of Nazareth in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. And John Turturro makes a brilliant turn as a foulmouthed, duplicitous cash mule, years before his indelible roles in Do the Right Thing (1989) and Miller’s Crossing (1990).
To Live and Die in L.A. was well-received by critics, but it didn’t score financially and may have further damaged Friedkin’s reputation. Today, it’s rightfully acknowledged as a near-masterpiece. The fashions and music and attitudes on display might have been interpreted at the time as opportunistic stabs at au courant stylization, but the film is nevertheless overpowering and otherworldly rather than quaint or kitschy. It feels like a transmission from a different planet. To Live and Die in L.A. is so of its time that you can only be captivated by it.
To Live and Die in L.A.
Directed by William Friedkin
June 16 and 17, IFC Center