to live and die in LA

William Friedkin 1985

I bloody love Michael Mann-style neo-noir crime dramas. For some reason I actually thought To Live and Die in LA was a Michael Mann film, but it is in fact written and directed by William Friedkin (based on a novel by real life Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich). For the earlier sections of the film, the Miami Vice-style flashiness looks kind of dated, drenched in some really hackneyed cop-macho bullshit lines. But underneath the 80s glitz, Friedkin’s ’70s nihilism is lurking, especially in the risky “What just happened?!” ending. It’s also possibly the only crime thriller ever made with a contemporary dance sequence.

CSI‘s William Petersen (having already appeared in Mann’s Thief) is cocksure, ego-driven obsessive Treasury Agent Richard Chance, determined to avenge the death of his partner at the hands of Willem Dafoe’s kinky counterfeiter Rick Masters. John Pankow turns in a realistically panicky performance as Petersen’s new partner John Vukovich, and I’d have liked to have seen more of him: apparently in a deleted scene he attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife, which would have added more weight to the ending.

We also get John Turturro as more of a tough than he usually plays, Frazier’s Jane Leeves as a lineless lesbian dancer, and Dean Stockwell as a conniving lawyer.

The film has dated badly in some ways. There are a lot of contemporary-feeling elements, like the technical exercise that is the counterfeiting sequence: we follows Masters’ funny money printing process in extreme detail, momentum building to the point that Wang Chung’s driving soundtrack is perfectly synchronised with the clanking of the printing press. It’s the sound of the 80s: drum machines and money and excess.

The opening credits, with their garish global hypercolour neon fonts, should look dated but actually add to the sense of place. It’s the dialogue and some of the early plot elements that look awful now: from the tacked-on, no-relation-to-the-rest-of-the-story opening sequence involving a suicide bomber and a reeeeally cheap explosion, to the impending retirement (and therefore grimly-inevitable murder) of the hero’s partner. With three days to go before he gets to spend his days fishing, Chance’s partner, mentor and best friend drives out into the desert to follow a lead. It’s not a spoiler to say the daft old bastard doesn’t come back. I had the same feeling as when I watched the pilot episode of Mann’s Miami Vice: that this was a slick, stylised new form of crime drama that hadn’t yet shaken off the plot clichés.

The film kicks into gear later, when Chance and Vukovich rob a fence to acquire front money to trap Masters. Needless to say, things go downhill from there. There’s a car chase that doesn’t have quite the visceral immediacy of the French Connection, but has obviously learnt some tricks from that film and in some of the camerawork may even be technically better. One shot in particular grabbed me, a stunning tracking dolly in which we follow Chance’s speeding car, then rise to an overpass to seamlessly meet the pursuers, before Chance screams back into shot and blasts off up a sidestreet.

I won’t say much about the ending, except to note that it almost comes from a different film than the beginning. The nearly-retired murdered partner is such a hackneyed cliché – surely even in 1985! – that I was considering turning the film off. But by the climax, To Live and Die in LA has raced into twisty noir territory and out the other side, into a bleakly brutal shock ending and a psychologically sophisticated final moment. You won’t see it coming.

39 thoughts on “to live and die in LA

  1. Nick

    Dean Stockwell isn’t an actor. He’s a lawyer employed to make sure the conniving is all realistic, and he ends up on camera because the actor is never as convincing as him. (cf R. Lee Ermey.)

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