Director William Friedkin is known as a ‘big’ personality, loud and aggressive and bellicose. He’s been called a bully more often than not (Nat Segaloff’s 1990 critical biography is appropriately titled ‘Hurricane Billy’). But Friedkin is a mess of contradictions, capable of self-critical introspection as well as macho posturing. His films frequently hover in that space between belligerence and artistic self-awareness; The French Connection ends with abject failure for Popeye Doyle; Father Karras in The Exorcist is plagued by crippling self-doubt; The Hunted details PTSD in soldiers after their prolonged exposure to the horrors of war. To Live and Die in L.A. might be the purest expression of this duality, detailing Friedkin’s fascination with daring men of action and the explicit recognition that their machismo is also a kind of death drive. Living on the edge is only exciting until you plummet over it, a realization that comes too late for Agent Richard Chance (oh boy, dig that on the nose last name. No one ever claimed that Friedkin is subtle). An even better title is Thomas Clagett’s ‘William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality, updated in a 2nd edition back in 2003. It’s that trifecta of pathologies that really burrow into what makes To Live and Die in L.A. so endlessly fascinating, a slick, sexy cop-on-the-edge thriller that is also unrelentingly bleak and cynical.
The narrative here is like a shark, it just can’t stop moving, piling incident on top of incident. Friedkin and co-writer Gerald Petievich (who also wrote the novel of the same name) cram enough plot in here for at least a few movies, beginning with a prologue sequence that functions as a kind of short film all by itself. Secret Service Agents Chance (William Petersen) and his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) foil an assassination attempt on a government official that ends with a jihadist exploding on the side of a building. Friedkin builds characters through action and movement, and even before the opening credits he’s established Chance as a go-for-broke wild man, who, um, takes chances, and his partner (who literally utters ‘I’m getting too old for this shit’) as the wiser, more cautious voice of reason. Chance and Hart have been investigating counterfeiter Rick Masters (a young, ominous looking Willem Dafoe) and Hart goes off on his own to track down a lead. Masters guns Hart down, and now Chance is after the man who killed his partner, no matter what it takes. This is a lot of plot, and we could go on; there are interesting side narratives involving a delightfully lizard-like Dean Stockwell as Master’s lawyer, a young John Turturro as a Masters associate that Chance tries to turn into an informant, and Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), an ex con who feeds Chance information and whom he frequently coerces into sleeping with him (it is in these scenes that Chance’s truly abusive, toxic masculinity shines through, casting his stereotypically ‘heroic’ actions into a much darker light).
It’s that trifecta of pathologies that really burrow into what makes To Live and Die in L.A. so endlessly fascinating, a slick, sexy cop-on-the-edge thriller that is also unrelentingly bleak and cynical.
But To Live and Die in L.A. is mostly remembered for two big reasons, an amazing car chase and the shocking death of Chance near the end of the film. Friedkin is very open in interviews that he wanted to film a chase sequence that would rival, if not top, the one from his own The French Connection. Typical of this era of film brat (see also Brian De Palma), technical achievements were largely inseparable from dick measuring contests. Friedkin’s excessive display of vulgarity would be more off-putting if he didn’t have the goods to back it up, and the chase he put together with iconic stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker is an absolute thing of beauty. It’s a long sequence that begins as a suspenseful bit of evasion before expanding into a high speed pursuit and ending in a demolition derby. Friedkin films everything with crystal clarity, keeping spatial relationships coherent and using editing for maximum, forceful impact. After that, Chance’s death is a big, unexpected moment. William Petersen, a stage actor from Chicago in his first big film role (he would appear in Mann’s Manhunter the following year) plays Chance as a big kid, a jock, an over excited meathead who can’t stand still. He’s always moving, crouching, leaping over furniture, fidgeting in his seat. He’s taking every cliche in the cop-on-the-edge playbook and burrowing into them, making them both exciting but also more dangerous. When Chance and his new, straight laced partner John Vukovich (played with cowardly, simpering perfection by John Pankow) try to get the upper hand on Masters, Chance takes a full shot gun blast to the face. It’s sudden and shocking, an unceremonious ending for an increasingly unlikeable protagonist. These kinds of movies simply do not end this way. But Friedkin has already spent the better part of two hours wallowing in the cynicism and violence of contemporary L.A., where no one is innocent and the cops are just as bad as the criminals they are trying to bring down. Working with cinematographer Robby Muller, Friedkin envisions L.A. as blazing hot oranges and deep reds, large swaths of neon lights illuminating scenes in sickly pastels, the humidity soaking into the walls of the shabby apartments and seedy alleys where the action transpires. To Live and Die in L.A. ends in a blazing inferno, an all consuming vision of Hell that is inescapable. As a portrait of the go-go 80’s, clearly, Friedkin took a look around and didn’t like what he saw.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.