Written by Matt Bowes
Is it possible to feel nostalgic for a genre of movie that had its heyday before you were even born? A sort of film that you never really had a chance to appreciate before it had become a joke? If it is, I feel that way about To Live and Die in L.A., which hits a lot of notes that have since become clichés, ideas that I first came to recognize in parodies and references before ever getting the real thing. I wish I’d been able to see it cold, you know? Without decades of in-jokes referencing this kind of film, things like the McBain spoof on The Simpsons, or The Naked Gun films. Luckily, this movie is so good that within minutes of starting it I always forget about the pale imitations that followed.
Richard Chance (William Petersen) is a renegade cop on the edge, who’s addicted to thrills and plays by his own rules. His partner Jimmy, who literally says he’s “too old for this shit” after stopping a potential terrorist attack three days before retirement, is killed soon thereafter by Rick Masters (Willem Defoe), a local counterfeiter-slash-blocked artist whom the two officers have been tracking for months now. Chance finds himself reluctantly partnered up with John Vukovich (John Pankow), and the two decide to take down Masters, no matter what it takes.
I fudged the truth a little bit there. Chance, Hart and Vukovich aren’t really cops per se as they all work for the United States Secret Service, which from the get-go lends To Live and Die in L.A. a different feel from a lot of other crime movies. Counterfeit money is their beat, rather than more pedestrian crimes like murder and robbery, and I wish we had more films dealing with this as a topic, because I find it fascinating. There’s a lot of thematic resonance there to be mined from things like authenticity, copies, and currency. The film is based on a book by a former Secret Service agent named Gerald Petievich, and his experiences in the field give it a real granularity that offsets some of those elements that have since become clichés. This is especially true in the scenes where Masters gets to work on printing up a fresh batch of cash. The sequence is presented wordlessly, and we as viewers are privileged enough to be shown the process in exquisite detail without being condescended to by excess narration explaining what’s going on. Masters is an interesting and off-kilter sort of villain. He hangs out at modern dance recitals, and burns his paintings on a wall outside his house, as they don’t seem to satisfy him the way making funny money does. In previous Why Haven’t You Watched This Yet? film Los Angeles Plays Itself, film scholar Thom Andersen links Masters’ aesthetic and artistic milieu to a long line of aesthete, upper-class types who are always the foils to our working-class, all-American heroes. As with all character notes in the film, it totally makes sense that someone who paints, and deals with imagery, negatives and the like would find counterfeiting to be a worthwhile crime endeavour. He’s got the skills, and the workspace, so why not? At least when you’re making counterfeit money, your work being called derivative is a plus.
In addition to Defoe, who’s great as Masters, the film has an incredible cast. Petersen achieves a kind of adorably macho quality as Chance, and his shitty, almost abusive relationship with Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel) is perfectly pitched between mutual self-absorption and self-destruction. It’s never fully fleshed out, partly because it doesn’t need to be, but he seems to have busted her some years before and they’ve been dating/swapping intel ever since. Dean Stockwell plays Grimes, Masters’ lawyer, and he’s engagingly greasy in every scene he appears in. A young John Turturro plays Cody, a runner for Masters who Chance busts after a fun chase through an airport terminal, and it’s cool to see him basically emerge fully-formed as the excellent actor he’s since gone on to become. Finally, for the Frasier fans in the audience, Jane Leeves, aka. Daphne, shows up in a sexy minor role as one of Masters’ girlfriends.
William Friedkin directs the film, which provides a sun-blanched counterpart to The French Connection’s grimy New York streets a decade earlier. Thom Andersen again has great things to say about the film’s use of Los Angeles, saying that Friedkin has to work a bit more to make the city photogenic. Friedkin shows us the spread-out, car-focused nature of the place with many driving scenes, and with a lot of other scenes being set outdoors in some blasted industrial hellscape or another. He also plays around with the idea of photo negatives, the kind you’d use to make fake money, in the beginning and end of the film. Check out these opening titles, as they contain basically everything you could possibly want from a crime flick set in the Eighties:
Neon colours and that handwritey font that would later go on to be used in Drive? Check. Weird modern dancers and other women lying around in spare, modern, chiaroscuro rooms? Check. A montage showing the city’s connection to money, and its circulation through various drug dealers, prostitutes and other demimondaines, recalling the similar montage in Superfly? Check.
The score is provided by Wang Chung, and, I’m not kidding here, it rules. While the band is kind of a punchline now for Eighties excess, probably because their biggest song tried to make “Wang Chung” into a verb in addition to a proper noun, that particular brand of synth and drums is exactly what this film needed to perfectly encapsulate the era it depicts. As he often does, Friedkin went a little overboard in his praise for the band on the back of the record album, which I’ve bought. He compares them to “Strauss, Wagner, Shoenberg, Stravinsky,” which is a little bit over the top, but the score itself is absolutely key to understanding the Eighties world of excessive violence, corruption, sex and interior design our characters find themselves in.
So why haven’t you watched this yet? Honestly, if you haven’t, you don’t really have a good excuse. Unlike Friedkin’s equally awesome Sorcerer, which has only this year been upgraded to Blu-ray with his oversight, To Live and Die in L.A. has already been converted to the best format around. If you, like me, have wondered where a lot of references to Eighties cop flicks had their origin, I definitely recommend seeking this film out. If you’re a fan of filmmakers like Michael Mann, Nicholas Winding Refn or Quentin Tarantino, I think there’s a lot to enjoy here as well.