1985 in Film – To Live and Die in LA

Release Date: November 1st
Box Office: $17,307,019

William Friedkin, man.

Of all the New Hollywood directors who contributed to that body of work, Friedkin is one that always hovers at the top of my list. This might be due to him making one of the best ever crime film and having the main character be called Doyle. But anyway.

The only problem was with the transition from that early glory years of the 70s through to the 80s. The wreckage of careers from that period is immense; Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate brought down a studio, Coppola fundamentally burned himself out for Apocalypse Now, Ashby and many others were consumed by the drugs that surrounded the industry.

Friedkin himself suffered; after the towering successes of The French Connection then The Exorcist the sky looked to be the limit. The fraught production of Sorcerer put paid to that, as did the critical mauling and Reid box office returns. The Brinks Job was similarly unsuccessful and whilst Cruising seemed to get the critics back on his side not even a young Richard Gere could get people in the seats. The nadir was reached with Deal of The Century, a Chevy Chase vehicle that barely sputtered to life.

Friedkin also suffered a heart attack during his period which meant months of rehabilitation. The heady heights of the early 70s were a long time ago. To Live and Die in LA wouldn’t put him back on that level but it would prove that he was still an exceptional film maker.

The film was a based on a book that Friedkin had seen whilst it was still a manuscript. Written by a former Secret Service agent, Friedkin liked the authenticity of it, something that would always be a hallmark of his work. That gritty almost documentary style of his wouldn’t necessarily be by choice; even back in the mid-80s a $6m budget was very small which meant that the film wouldn’t have any big names.

William Peterson would be cast as the lead, at this point of his career a respected theatre working in Chicago. This was his big break in Hollywood, before this was a minor role in Michael Mann’s Thief.

He would play Richard Chance, a secret service agent based in LA. He and his partner are trying to track down a counterfeiter, Rick Masters played by Willem Defoe. Masters kills Chance’s partner who swears vengeance. He then becomes obsessed by this, dragging his new partner along with him as he willingly does whatever it takes to bring down Masters.

Whilst full of cliches (the hot headed play by no rules cop, the partner killed three days from retirement, some of the dialogue) the film is saved by a cast and crew squeezing as much out of it as they can. Peterson pours himself into his character, full of barely contained aggression and swagger. Defoe sits opposite him, an artist criminal swanning around LA in flash cars living a lifestyle fuelled by his fake money.

The two of them are both sides of the same coin; neither really cares for the law as both are willing to break it in order to achieve their goals.

The rest of the cast is filled out by other great character actors and marshalled by Friedkin. It would be unkind to say that the film is simply a West Coast version of The French Connection as whilst their share superficial themes (the rogue cop and the suave criminal mastermind) LAsomeone manages to have a more cynical tone that Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece. Whilst Hackman brings a humanity to Doyle, Peterson has an almost nihilistic drive that pushes the character to extremes that Doyle couldn’t, or wouldn’t, quite reach. Whilst Doyle is someone serving the law, Chance sees himself as the law.

The only negative to the film, as this is a matter of taste, is the soundtrack by Wang Chung. A UK New Wave band, Friedkin picked them for the film and whilst it’s not a band soundtrack it doesn’t seem to fit the vibe of the film. It feels like it should be for a glossier Miami Vice style film rather than this gritty look at LA crime.

It says a lot that the music doesn’t appear during the highlight of the film, the borderline insane car chase up the wrong side of a freeway. Friedkin had come up with the concept of the chase in the early 60s but never had a film it would work in. The man in charge of the stunts was Buddy Joe Hooker and Friedkin challenged him to come up with a car chase better than the one in French Connection. Six weeks later, and $1m over budget, the sequence was completed. Whether or not it’s better than the iconic chase from French Connection comes down to personal taste, but it still stands as one of the high points of the decade when it comes to car chases.

The film ended up making money and getting good reviews. It may not have been a total return to form as Friedkin still had some stinkers in him, but the point was that the film reminded everyone of the kind of filmmaker Friedkin could be. By 1985 New Hollywood was firmly in the ground and the cocaine fuelled blockbuster era personified by Don Simpson was in full swing, his time was supposed to have been over. With To Live and Die in LA he proved that he still had the fire in him to create a film as good as his early work.

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