To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Written by William Friedkin & Gerald Petievich
Directed by William Friedkin
Director William Friedkin made his name in the 1970s with films like The French Connection and the phenomenal success of The Exorcist. Then his following pictures didn’t quite click with audiences, and he slid into less big-budget work. That’s where Friedkin works best, though, and in 1985 he gave us a movie that might out Eighties De Palma’s Scarface. To Live and Die in L.A. is a movie dripping with neon fluorescents, cocaine, and just all-around sleaze. The soundtrack was by pop group Wang Chung and the visuals are full of non sequitur 80s pop art images.
Richard Chance (William Petersen) is a U.S. Secret Service agent investigating counterfeiters in the Los Angeles area. His partner, Jimmy Hart, is killed when he stakes out a warehouse in the desert where they believe the printing process happens. This inflames Chance, who wants revenge but gets saddled with John Vukovich (John Pankow) as his new partner who wants to do things by the book. The counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) is dealing with a series of problems from an unreliable distributor (John Turturro), warnings from his lawyer (Dean Stockwell), and the sort of day to day operations of a criminal enterprise.
To Live and Die in L.A. is a profoundly nihilistic, shallow movie but is precisely what Friedkin wants from this movie. The picture is chock full of tropes that would become cliches by the end of the decade. An older officer expresses that they are too old for the job and dies just before retirement, the villain is a pansexual deviant who mixes art and crime, the lead character is shouted at by his boss for not following the procedure, but all of this does not add up to the sort of movie you might imagine.
There is no hero anywhere in this film, and by the end, it is clear that the narrative has gone off the rails. Every character is duplicitous and thinks only of how to enrich and empower themselves. Chance might have started out wanting revenge for his partner’s death, but by the end of the movie, it’s just about outsmarting Masters. Turturro’s Carl Cody, the type of character Turturro would make a career on playing, feigns wanting to help the authorities but turns out to be a rat just like all the rest. Every single person, down to the main character’s girlfriend, lies and manipulates out of self-interest.
William Friedkin has a strong streak of nihilism, and it’s never more present than in To Live and Die in L.A. He doesn’t hit his themes on the nose as badly as Oliver Stone in Wall Street when it comes to a critique of the 1980s, Friedkin plays things subtler, deceptively surface level. Throughout the picture are walls adorned with photographs of President Ronald Reagan, a symbol of the dark descent of human civilization during this decade, one that would resonate into our own time. Art and money both burn during the film, a not so nuanced statement of the intangibility of security, power, and beauty. There is no justice with federal agents breaking the law, again and again, to further their own agenda. Even the most white hat character in the movie is completely sunk into the mire of corruption and jaded, reflecting how people like him are inevitably pulled under by a system that is rotten to its core.
To Live and Die in L.A. is not a sugarcoating of 1980s excess, but a line of pure cocaine that fries your nervous system. It’s loud and harsh, violence explodes in technicolor blood, but the camera can’t bother to linger for too long out of disinterest. Sex is meaningless, just people using each other and al parties aware that their actions amount to nothing. Friedkin seems to mock the disaffected coolness of the 1980s action hero and dispassionate hipster artists, letting the world burn down around them.