By John H. Foote
30. TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985)
Fourteen years before the release of this exciting thriller, director William Friedkin won the Academy Award for his film The French Connection, the Academy Award winning Best Picture of 1971. Two years later he was back with the blockbuster horror film The Exorcist (1973), nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. He struggled after Sorcerer (1977), a remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear (1953), and never again achieved the heights he had attained. Cruising (1980), his controversial story of the S/M gay world where a serial killer is running wild, is a much better film than reviewed as being. Al Pacino gave a profoundly powerful performance as a man slipping into the world he does not understand, and by the end of the film, might have killed a man he was attracted too.
Five years later he made one of the finest films of his career, a crime thriller that one hoped might land him back in the Oscar race. To Live and Die in L.A. was a superb thriller, directed with power and visceral anger by Friedkin, telling the story of two Secret Service agents on the trail of a successful counterfeiter, who is just always out of their reach. Granted Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is no common crook, he is heavy into art, and used those skills to create his fake money. The opening ten minutes of the film, over the credits, show us how Masters makes his fake money and it is a thing of beauty to see, every detail explored.
Chance (William Peterson) is the hot-dogging agent not afraid to take risks as long as the end is the bad guy getting caught. Masters has been good at what he does for a long time and is not afraid to flaunt his success in front of the cops, daring them to find a way to nail him. Chance becomes obsessed with him, with bringing him down. Needing cash for a buy from Masters, he decides he can work a scheme where he steals the money from another crook, pay Masters and bring him down. What is the other criminal going to do? Claim he was robbed? How would he explain having so much cash on his person? And Chance counts on this.
But the set up goes horribly wrong and a friend of Chance’s is killed, falling and blowing his head off with a shotgun. It is a disaster in every way, and Chance knows it is entirely his fault. This places Chance in the terrible position of having to somehow return more money than he can and atone for the death of his partner and friend. Though he has someone on the inside, a beautiful woman, who to avoid jail feeds Chance information and sex. It is a strange and highly irregular arrangement, and both know it. Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) feels filthy about what goes on between she and Chance, but the agent holds the power and is not afraid to remind her of that.
Given a new partner, Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance fills him in as much as much as he needs to know, but to his surprise, Vukovich knows more than he realizes. Armed with what they know they can do to Masters, their pursuit goes full blast, legal or not. Chance is so careless in his actions, we know without having to see it happen (though we do) he is doomed, but they do bring Masters down.
Seemingly free from Chance, Ruth is shocked to hear Vukovich tell her “you work for me now”, expecting the same arrangement.
Movies that teach me something about a world I know nothing about are thrilling to me, and this film was one thrill after another and full of surprises. By the look on his face, Chance is often very surprised by the events that transpire as well. As smart an agent as he might be, his risks do not always work out the way he hopes, and people die.
Motion dominates To Live and Die in L.A. as Chance always seems to be hurtling somewhere, running at top speed, driving crazily, even entering the L.A. freeway going the wrong way in pursuit of someone he wants. Though on the right side of the law, he is an outlaw, breaking rules, breaking the law, but hellbent on bringing down a very bad guy. Chases are always happening, Chance is always on the run, be it in the airport for a wild chase through the entire LAX it seems, to the sensational freeway chase going the wrong way on the L.A. freeway. Incredibly shot and edited, To Live and Die in L.A. is a technical masterpiece, but so often forgotten are the performances of the actors, especially Peterson, who is brilliant here but never really caught on as a film star. He did forge a wonderful career as forensics expert Gil Grissom on TV’s CSI for several years, eventually producing as well as starring. Here as Chance he is fiercely dedicated to the Secret Service, more than willing to bend and break rules, Chance is focused but when he takes risks he takes his eye off what is important, more than once. It is a powerful physical performance, and he captures all the right emotions too. Equally good is John Pankow as his partner, along for the ride and risks and his admiration for Chance is obvious.
Best of all is Dafoe as the artist who counterfeits, Masters. With a predatory look about him, his lean body has not an ounce of fat, and when he works out he does so with purpose, as though he knows he will have to one day use his skills. The opening 10 minutes are a “how to” of counterfeiting, something the authorities struggled with because of the accuracy of the manner in which the money was made. Masters might be an artist, and a very good one, but he is also a criminal and that too he is good at.
After so many duds or failures it must have felt good for Friedkin to have a hit again, but it did not last. To Live and Die in L..A. was a strong film, one of the finest of his career, but it did not add up to anything for him. Still he made a crime thriller for the ages, terribly underappreciated, but found on video and made famous by the audiences discovering the work.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.