William Friedkin, RIP: Why the 80s Action Movie To Live and Die in L.A. Is His “Subversive Masterpiece”

William Fried­kin, who died yes­ter­day, will be most wide­ly remem­bered as the direc­tor of nine­teen-sev­en­ties genre hits like The French Con­nec­tion and The Exor­cist. But it was in the sub­se­quent decade that he made his most impres­sive pic­ture, at least accord­ing to the Paper Star­ship video essay above. As its nar­ra­tor Mar­cus Mus­ca­to puts it, Fried­kin’s To Live and Die in L.A. came out in 1985 as “a per­fect blend­ing of the crime and rene­gade cop gen­res, drenched bril­liant­ly in eight­ies aes­thet­ic and nihilis­tic exis­ten­tial glo­ry.” Over near­ly half an hour, he breaks down every major ele­ment of this “sub­ver­sive mas­ter­piece,” from its simul­ta­ne­ous­ly slick and dingy look and feel to its tech­ni­cal and nar­ra­tive brazen­ness to its sound­track by none oth­er than Wang Chung.

Like Fried­kin’s ear­li­er crime films, To Live and Die in L.A. traces “the thin line between cops and crim­i­nals, stat­ing how some of the best cops have some crim­i­nal in them, or have been crim­i­nals them­selves.” It does most of this through the char­ac­ter of Secret Ser­vice agent Richard Chance, played by William Petersen as a kind of “nihilis­tic Fonzie.” In pur­suit of Willem Dafoe’s sin­is­ter artist-coun­ter­feit­er Rick Mas­ters, Chance shows no cau­tion, and his dar­ing-to-the-point-of-reck­less ded­i­ca­tion. Fried­kin matched it with his own “spon­ta­neous, anti-author­i­tar­i­an guer­ril­la film­mak­ing,”  covert­ly shoot­ing and using per­for­mances his actors (whom he was­n’t above encour­ag­ing to do some rule-break­ing of their own) had been led to believe were rehearsals.

Fried­kin and his col­lab­o­ra­tors metic­u­lous­ly planned and painstak­ing­ly exe­cut­ed oth­er sequences, such as the cen­tral car chase. “The chase isn’t just on a free­way. It goes the wrong way down the free­way,” wrote Roger Ebert in his con­tem­po­rary review. “I don’t know how Fried­kin chore­o­graphed this scene, and I don’t want to know.” How­ev­er aston­ish­ing (and anx­i­ety-induc­ing) it remains today, it would­n’t be as effec­tive with­out the “hyp­no­tiz­ing yet ener­getic atmos­phere” cre­at­ed through­out the film by the music of Wang Chung, a band both indeli­bly asso­ci­at­ed with the eight­ies and also pos­sessed of a pen­chant for uncon­ven­tion­al, even sin­is­ter son­ic tex­tures. That’s true even of their ear­li­er sin­gles: wit­ness how well “Wait,” released in 1983, suits the ver­tig­i­nous plunge of the film’s star­tling but chill­ing­ly inevitable end­ing.

Yet even this con­clu­sion is just one mem­o­rable part among many. “Along with one of the great­est chase scenes, the film con­tains one of the most authen­tic and aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing depic­tions of the mon­ey coun­ter­feit­ing process,” Mus­ca­to says. Those with an aver­sion to spoil­ers would do best to watch the movie itself before the video essay, but like the work of any respectable auteur, it draws its pow­er from much more than plot twists. Its main theme, as Fried­kin him­self put it, was the “coun­ter­feit world: coun­ter­feit emo­tions, coun­ter­feit mon­ey, the coun­ter­feit super­struc­ture of the Secret Ser­vice. Every­one in the film has a kind of coun­ter­feit motive.” Giv­en that the world has become no more real over the past four decades, per­haps it’s no won­der that To Live and Die in L.A. holds up so well today.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Scari­est Film of All Time?: Revis­it­ing the Hys­te­ria in 1973 Around The Exor­cist by William Fried­kin (RIP)

Watch Randy Newman’s Tour of Los Ange­les’ Sun­set Boule­vard, and You’ll Love L.A. Too

Who Designed the 1980s Aes­thet­ic?: Meet the Mem­phis Group, the Design­ers Who Cre­at­ed the 80s Icon­ic Look

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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