To Live and Die in L.A.

The runaway success of the CBS crime drama C.S.I. may finally win one of the1980s’ best thrillers the audience and respect it’s always deserved. To Live And Die In L.A. introduced William Petersen, a superb and criminally underrated actor, to the world. More than that, though, it brought a whole different worldview to bear on the crime film. Michael Mann’s Heat, to name just one example, is utterly indebted to TLADILA for its tone and its depiction of Los Angeles as a wasteland where everyone’s got an angle and no one is incorruptible, not even the purported hero.

Petersen plays Secret Service agent Richard Chance, who’s on the trail of master counterfeiter Rick Masters. Willem Dafoe plays Masters as more lizard than man, utterly cool, never seeming to blink, even when he’s using his girlfriend to seduce down the door of a man he intends to kill for stealing from him. It’s an astonishing performance, and one that prefigures his entire career, even his take on Jesus. (Before TLADILA, Dafoe had only appeared in Streets Of Fire and a few other, small roles. On the DVD commentary, director William Friedkin explains that he deliberately cast the film with relative unknowns, to allow the characters to overtake their interpreters. It was a wise choice.)

As Chance gets closer and closer to Masters, he becomes obsessed with the take-down, only partly because the counterfeiter murdered Chance’s partner. His new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow), is increasingly put off by Chance’s recklessness and willingness to do seemingly anything to get his man. This is where Friedkin’s bone-deep cynicism comes to the fore. As shown in his earlier films like The French Connection, Cruising and Sorcerer, he’s really not a director with a whole lot of nice things to say about humanity. A story like this one, where literally every character seems to have a combination of secrets and grudges separating him or her from every other character, is almost archetypal Friedkin territory and he handles it masterfully. Action set-pieces (not just the infamous wrong-way car chase, but a foot-race through LAX and a fiery fight scene) are brilliantly blocked and shot, but never to the detriment of the unnerving unspooling of the universally unsavory cast of characters.

The film’s greatest shock comes near the end, and naturally it won’t be revealed in this review. But what’s even more disturbing, in the long run, is the impact on the character of Vukovich, who had seemed like a moral man lost in a wilderness of crime and vengeance. When, as the film oozes to a close, he seems just as trapped as everyone around him, everyone he’s tried to break away from for the preceding 90 minutes, it’s as crushing a blow as has ever been delivered in film noir.

The DVD edition of To Live And Die In L.A. presents the film in a great, widescreen print, and features director’s commentary, a latter-day documentary about the making of the film (including interviews with cast members), and one deleted scene, which wouldn’t have added much and might, indeed, have detracted from the film’s visceral impact.

Phil Freeman