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‘To Live And Die in L.A.’ 4K UHD (review)

Kino Lorber

William Friedkin followed the one-two punch of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) with Sorcerer (1977), a remake of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, that while being excellent had the misfortune of coming out the same day as Star Wars and costing two studios a monumental amount of money.

Following that, he made the subversive thriller Cruising (1980) about a serial killer in the New York pre-AIDS gay scene sandwiched between two light comedies to keep up his reputation as a filmmaker who could deliver projects on time and budget.

By 1984, Friedkin had decided it was time to get back to the kinds of projects that had made him one of the hottest properties in Hollywood.

He was given a manuscript by former Secret Service Agent Gerald Petievich called To Live and Die in L.A. about Secret Service agents chasing down counterfeiters.

In the story Friedkin found the two thematic elements that always drew him to procedural work: authenticity and subtext that the cops and the criminals they chased had more in common than either would care to admit.

What makes To Live and Die in L.A. more than just a retread of Friedkin’s early work is likewise twofold: Friedkin abandons the pseudo-documentary raw feeling The French Connection and The Exorcist and develops a brilliant, sun-baked, style of Los Angeles in the mid-80’s that is utterly indelible.

Supported by a moody synth-pop soundtrack from Wang Chung (Yes, that Wang Chung) the film becomes a visual battleground between the grounded verisimilitude of William Petersen’s Chance and the tortured style of Willem Dafoe’s tortured counterfeiter/artist Rick Masters.

Secondly, while Popeye Doyle and Father Karras were complicated protagonists, To Live and Die in L.A. raises the stakes even further by giving us the aforementioned Special Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen). Motivated by revenge for the death of his mentor (Michael Greene) at the hands of a young, volatile, counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe).

Chance as his name suggests has a reputation for reckless, risk-taking behavior. We see Chance and we think, “Ah, we know him. The loose cannon, the cop who gets things done.”

However, in Chance’s case his risk-taking, impulsive, behavior does not cover a heart of gold or an obsession with doing the right thing but a moral absence. He is man without conscience or soul: freely using an informant for sex and information without care to whether she lives or dies; pushing his straight-laced partner Vukovich (John Pankow) on increasingly large lapses of protocol and safety and using any tactic to bend him to his will; and finally executing a heist of his own when red tape threatens to cut short his sting operation on Masters.

There is no moral excellence and desire to see the truth or need to put the world right such as may drive many complicated and ambiguous detectives there is the only the need to see what he can get away with– how far he can tug at the world’s rope before the world tugs back because in everything Chance does he is looking to die, without being aware that that’s what is driving him.

Where a more conventional film would have Chance realize and overcome this, Friedkin instead depicts Chance (and the soul erosion that comes from operating as he does, outside the normal world) as continually seductive, corrupting, and contagious. There is no return to normalcy at the end of To Live and Die in L.A. the pawns and pieces have merely shuffled until the next game begins.

Opposing Chance is Rick Masters, and he is an antagonist worthy of the film. Dafoe lends Masters a moody, restless, quality. He creates fake money to finance his real visual art, he burns the art he makes because it can never live up to his own ideal of perfection that he has imbued into the craft of counterfeiting money. Masters’ search for excellence even as he has already been consumed into the violent, heartless, and criminal world he has chosen lends him a tragic subtext. He’s like a man who has sold his soul long ago and now cannot believe how little he let it go for.

He’s surrounded by kept women who don’t love him, lawyers and clients who will try and kill him and at the drop of a hat, he is so far from the authenticity he needs to express himself that he can never return. He cannot love his art, as good as it may be, because he recognizes it as the work of a soulless man, and so his only real satisfaction, like Chance, comes from being good at what he does. They have not been subsumed into their jobs, they are using their jobs to fill the holes where their humanity has been amputated.

This stunning 4K UHD Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary track.  Also included is a 4K Blu-ray restoration which features the same commentary track as well as several archival featurettes, a deleted scene and an alternate ending.  Also included a radio spot and trailer.

Between these two poles a number of great character actors are bounced: John Tuturro, Gary Cole, Dean Stockwell. All of them playing out their parts in the corrupt and illusory world of pink pastel and red blood that To Live and Die in L.A. depicts.

This is one of the greatest American crime films, and you owe it yourself to see it, even if you’re not a fan of the genre.

This review is dedicated to the memory of director William Friedkin.

Director William Friedkin discusses an upcoming scene with star William Petersen, on one of forty-seven different locations featured in To Live and Die in L.A. Still photographer: Jane O’Neal © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/image via

 

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