Monday, August 17, 2009

To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)

On the surface, To Live and Die in L.A. (a.k.a. Police fédérale, Los Angeles) may appear to be your average crime picture, but it doesn't take that long to realize that there's something utterly unique going in-between all the macho posturing. I mean, I can't think of any other police procedurals that boast interpretive dance sequences (with a definite Liquid Sky vibe) and tortured painters who burn their own artwork. Well, first of all, there ain't no police in this movie. The shady protagonist may look like a cop on the edge (his propensity for jumping off bridges does nothing but foster this edgy perception), but he's actually a federal agent who protects the President of the United States when he or she is in town. When the so-called Commander-in-chief is not in town, he and his fellow agents are in charge of busting up counterfeiting rings. Anyway, this is one of few films of its type that I watch on a regular basis. The uniqueness I was alluding to before I got sidetracked is the main reason I keep coming back this energetic thriller about a reckless agent hellbent on avenging the death of his partner at the hands of an inflexible forgery artist. With no obvious "good guy" to root for, the William Friedkin-directed film, based on the book by Gerald Petievich, has an uneasy quality about it. Of course, I found this ambiguity to be very appealing, as the prospect of watching a battle between two clearly defined versions of good and evil is something I'm not that interested in.

Probably not the first, and definitely not the last film to feature a scene where a bedraggled government employee on the cusp of retirement verbally communicates his frustration over the fact his physically demanding job and advanced age are at odds with another to a younger, more rambunctious co-worker. But when smeared in the gaudy veneer of Los Angeles circa 1985, as photographed by Robby Müller, things that would normally come off as trite are rendered fresh and exciting.

The city of L.A. is presented as a rundown, unorganized mess. (I loved the constant shots of the industrial landscape.) However, the city also comes across as a beautiful and strangely surreal place.

An overly spry William Petersen leads the manly contingent of the cast as the vengeful Richard Chance, a federal agent who wants bust a ruthless counterfeiter so badly, that he is willing to break the very laws he's been hired to enforce. Backing up him is the squirrel-like John Pankow as John Vukovich, Chance's new by-the-book partner. These two are great at spouting tough guy dialogue and what not, but it's their intense acting during the film's most famous sequence: the extended car chase, that deserves the majority of the praise. Actually, the amazing work of the stunt drivers is probably the real key to the chases' success. Nevertheless, I thought they played up the confusion as to who they were being chased by perfectly, as Mr. Pankow's incoherent blubbering and Mr. Petersen's icy determination gave the reckless pursuit an added sense of danger.

Proving that his bad guy chops are impeccable in the underrated Streets of Fire, Willem Dafoe tackles another scumbag role in the form of Rick Masters, a counterfeiter/artist/sadist. While not as overtly sinister as Raven (his Streets of Fire character), his turn as the unbending producer of funny money is just as ominous. The fact that Willem's face, when photographed from an unflattering angle, has a real mask-like quality to it that just screams "I'm one depraved motherfucker!" really helped in the demonization department.

Engaging in some of the best scantily clad lounging I have ever witnessed in a motion picture, Debra Feuer and Darlanne Fluegel (Eyes of Laura Mars)are the principal ladies in the lives of the troubled men that populate To Live and Die in L.A. Similar in function, yet totally different when it comes to temperament, Debra and Darlanne not only provide the film with some much needed sexiness, but also manage bring out the guy's softer sides.

The statuesque Fräulein Feuer plays Bianca Torress, the dancer/partner/girlfriend of Rick Masters, and carries herself with a dignified air (even when a mute Jane Leeves is giving her a foot massage). While the lithesome Juffrouw Fluegel (by the way, I love their vowel-heavy f-names) plays Ruth Lanier is Richard Chance's informant/fuck buddy, and is not dignified at all (her day job as a strip club cashier doesn't exactly help this dignity deficiency). Either way, I thought the both were tremendous at conveying the stresses that come with being the girlfriend's of men who live their lives on the wild side (which is in the same zip code as "the edge").

The amount of daring it took to allow Wang Chung to score the film cannot be quantified. A music score that is almost a character onto itself at times, the new wave band, probably best known for their nonthreatening brand of pop rock, create an invigorating soundtrack that repeatedly injects the proceedings with an added oomph. A chaotic mix of drum machines and synthesizers, their bold sound is inexplicably in perfect harmony with every scene. Frantic during the film's many chase sequences, restrained during the quieter moments.

It's true, that some find their music to be distracting... a nuisance, if you will. Yet, I can't imagine the film without it. Take the scene where we see Willem Dafoe's Rick Masters doing what he does best, for example. The way their thumping beats accompany the counterfeiting process was seamless. Now, I wouldn't say that Wang Chung is the sole reason the film doesn't end up being another in a long line of benign thrillers, but it does help solidify its standing as one the most electrifying action flicks from the 1980s.

video uploaded by dangoist


  1. Terrific review.

    I think this is one of the best crime pics ever made.

    It is so dark and filled with grim inevitability.

    The music, for mine, fits the period perfectly (and therefore the film).

  2. dangoist: I loved the scene where Defoe is making the money, which was very erotic somehow with all that brightly colored ink. Great film and very unique. Nothing like it before or since. I thought Defoe was so good here, almost like he had sadistic superpowers. Great post. -- Mykal

  3. A very nice review and I loved the stills you incorporated. This is a great crime film from the 1980s. I've always thought it was the best Michael Mann film not made by Mann.

    In addition to the awesome car chase in this film, I also feel that the foot chase through the airport between Petersen and a wonderfully scuzzy John Turturro is another highlight... esp. the bit where Petersen jumps up on the railing of the moving sidewalk and runs along it - something that the airport folks forbid Friedkin and co. to do but they did it anyways. heh.

    And the sucker-punch twist of the finale, that flips the crime thriller conventions on its head is a nice touch. Looking at it now, such a nihilistic, uncompromising film would probably have a very hard time being made now and it is to Friedkin's credit that he was able to pull it off.

  4. Love the review. Big fan of the score as well. This is the best action film of the 80's in my opinion. The super fun yet silly Die Hard and Commando not far behind.

  5. Phantom of Pulp: Thanks, PoP.

    I quite enjoyed your recent horror movie lists. Though, I think you forget to mention PIN.

    Mykal: I'm glad you liked my post. :)

    Oh, and I'm not "dangoist," that's the name of the person who uploaded the video. I like to give credit to the people who upload the videos; something I picked up from the fine folks over at The Scandy Factory.

    J.D.: Thanks. Except for the stills of Petersen wielding his pistol and Pankow looking through the hole in the rear window, I tried to choose pics that didn't have anything to do with the action sequences.

    Now that I think about it, the film does have a certain Mann-ish quality.

    The shrill alarm and the out-of-control nature of Wang Chung's drum machine also add to the frantic pace of the airport gambol.

    Yeah, it's quite uncompromising. And rather nonchalant, if you ask me.

    Cinema Du Meep: Thanks, CDM.

    I've always wanted to re-delve into the goofy world of Commando.

  6. Yum-Yum: Ooops, sorry for the mix up - Mykal

  7. Great review. I love this movie. I remember I watched this with my dad over and over after it first came out. We, along with my brother, all loved it.

  8. You're right. I did forget PIN. I love PIN. I might shuffle one out and slip PIN in.

    Have you ever read Andrew Neiderman's novel of PIN? It's very good, too.

  9. Part of what I think some people have trouble with is how the characters in this film are trying to play these macho roles which they don't really pull off (this is a film about counterfeiting in more than one sense), and how that split between how people see themselves and how they actually are is the source of the aforementioned "grim inevitability" can seem, on a lazy viewing, as just bad acting. That, and the score (which I *love*) are almost provocative, almost invite critical dismissal, which is another reason I always had a soft spot for this film. Excellent post!

  10. Keith: Thanks, Keith. I can totally see this film bringing male family members closer together.

    Phantom of Pulp: Cool. I thought it might have been ineligible or something.

    Haven't read the book (didn't even know there was a book), but I'm sure it's creepy as hell.

    db: Thanks, db. I'm glad to see that they're others out there who dig this flick and its much maligned score (I get mocked for liking it on a regular basis).

  11. Awesome film. I just rewatched it recently--along with Manhunter--and finally recognized how hot William Petersen is--80s Petersen, not as much the guy on CSI.

    I'd say more, but it's my birthday, and I'm a little drunk, so I'll stop there.

    Oh, the Wang Chung score is hella cool.

  12. Happy Birthday!!!

    Yay! Slight drunkenness.

    I think it was William Petersen's overall spryness that made him so hot in TLADIL and Manhunter. (The guy on CSI ain't spry at all.)

    Oh, and I just found out that Warner Archives doesn't deliver to Canada. Boo. No Urgh! DVD for me. :(

  13. Hey, thanks for the ^5, Yum-Yum! I had noticed you adopted the credit-giving technique for videos that sooo many people neglect to apply. I'd like to see it catch on!

    I don't comment as I should, but I so enjoy reading your work here. Not only does it flow nicely, but it can be technical without being pretentious in the least. A very rare thing in blogger country.
    Plus, I didn't even realize this was a Friedkin film; it's been a long time since I've given it any attention.

  14. No problem, Scandy. :)

    I'll make sure to credit you when I post my upcoming entry on Albert Pyun's Nemesis and use your video featuring what has to be one the most awesome scenes in film history.

  15. Has anyone ever noticed that the very first kissing scene between that utterly stunning and gorgeous Debra Furer and sexy Willem Dafoe looks like it's acutally a make stand-in?? I noticed this the very first time I saw it. It happens right as Willem Dafoe is sitting at the bar watching Debra and the rest of dancers in her dance troupe do their dance. Then the scene cuts to what is supposed to be Debra (but instead is a male) as she/he is walking back to dressing room, where Dafoe immediately walks up and kisses her/him. All the while you NEVER once see the front of the person, as the person never faces the audience. Then right in the middle of Dafoe kissing this obvious male, who is supposed to Debra, it cuts away and shows Debra facing the camera and removing her wig. Another dead give-away. That is why these scenes are cut-up and edited like that. This is was an obvious male who for some unknown reason stood in as Debra, while Dafoe walks up and plants one on him. Not only that, but it was a pretty intense kiss too, even though it did not last long. You can tell it's a male because his back was very strong and muscular like a male's back is. It was NOT a femine womans back at all. It was the shape of a male, as well as the hair on his head. That was a male stand-in in that scene and I would stake my life on it. It was probably done as a gag and/or as an inside joke, or maybe on a dare from the crew. LOL-LOL-LOL. That's what I honestly think. I wonder why no one else has ever said anything about it or questioned why it was done at all??

    This is one of my all-time favorite movies, and it's said that they don't make all movies as good as this, nor do they cast movies as good as this one. I would have loved to have seen many more movies starring Debra Furer, Dafoe, and Peterson. Instead they give us idiotic stupid movies starring actresses who have no talent at all, actresses such as Jennifer "can't-act-worth-a-damn" Aniston, Sarah Jessica "the-worst-actress-in-America" Parker, Sandra "one-hit-in-the-movie-speed" Bullock, and others just like them. Jeez, how pathetic!!

  16. Deborah--

    My take is that Masters' girlfriend is a female mirror image of himself, and that they're drawn to each other because they're so alike. Often when we see them they're either reflected in mirrors, home video, or self-portraits. When Rick kisses her, he's kissing himself.