William Friedkin's career as a director is both instructive and typical. After making a few features films, by and large pretty good, Friedkin got lucky. The kind of lucky he got is only available to those who have a great deal of talent to begin with, but, none the less, luck is luck. Friedkin happened upon a film perfectly suited to his talents, The French Connection. It won the Academy Award for best picture, and best director. This sort of thing happens two or three times a year. A director matches up well with a script, the actors, the cinematographer, etc., and out comes a critical and commercial hit. Friedkin then performed the trick that gains one true clout in Hollywood: he got lucky twice in a row. Another project came along that proved perfect, The Exorcist, this time, and the profits were tremendous. As a result, Friedkin could do no wrong and was spoken of with the same awe reserved for Peter Bogdanovich after The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, George Lucas after American Grafitti and Star Wars, and Francis Coppola after The Godfather I & II. Note that, of all these gentlemen, the only one who kept his clout is Lucas, who immediately retired from directing to produce films.
Friedkin's luck ran out, as luck usually does. I liked Sorcerer a lot, but few others seemed to, and his next three films did him little credit. However, the marvelous thing about talent is that, almost always, if it's lucky once, sooner or later the luck returns. Luck has come back to William Friedkin, giving him a chance to work with his kind of script again, a script about gritty, realistic cops working over the line in a sordid world. To Live and Die in L.A. is a splendid film, extremely exciting, original in vision, and solidly based on important thoughts and observations.
The story, set in LA, of course, concerns US Treasury agents after a counterfeiter. Eric Masters is a particularly nasty specimen who murders one of the agents early on. From this point on, Agent Richard Chance becomes determined to catch the villain. Chance knows perfectly well who did it, but Masters is so careful, smart, and smooth that it has proven impossible to get the goods on him. The bulk of the movie concerns Chance's increasingly desperate attempts to find a way to nail his adversary, and to clean up the mess he makes. Unlike a Dirty Harry fantasy, Chance's excesses cannot be excused, even by success. When he crosses the line, he will have to pay.
To Live and Die in LA is a fast and violent film. Friedkin claims that there are no more than three or four minutes of on-screen violence, and I suppose that he is right. However, the film serves as a demonstration that a small amount of violence well-presented can be more shocking and exciting than a large amount shown without imagination. When the violence occurs in To Live and Die in LA, it's very hard to overcome the illusion that this is real violence happening to real people. Typical mad slasher films or Rumba clones spend half their time showing people maimed or killed, but one rarely believes that the violence is authentic. These films show numbing violence, violence which makes you forget that when you shoot someone, a person with a real life, a real family, real hopes and ambitions, dies. The death of even a minor character in To Live and Die in LA reminds you that a life has been snuffed out. Maybe the victim wasn't a very nice or valuable person, but he was human. That said, it is worth mentioning that the violence is very strongly presented, and some of it is quite gruesome.
The big set piece of To Live and Die in LA is a chase scene, Friedkin's first since The French Connection. Well, Friedkin is two for two on chase scenes, as far as I'm concerned. Friedkin regards chases as vastly important and difficult scenes, not something to be undertaken lightly or just thrown away. He builds up to his chase, and then he delivers. Chance and his partner find themselves in a bad situation which quickly worsens in an almost Kafkaesque manner (Friedkin's phrase, not mine), until finally the only thing left to do is race up a busy freeway the wrong way. Editor Bud Smith deserves praise for his handling of this sequence, as well as fine work on the rest of the film.
Friedkin's picture of LA is not precisely flattering. Shot in an area of the city dominated by oil wells, refineries, warehouses, factories, and squalid housing, Friedkin shows LA at its worst. Paradoxically, some of it is almost beautiful, particularly the smoggy sunset which appears on the posters. Credit for the photography goes to Robby Muller, a German cinematographer who frequently works for Wim Wenders. Muller provides a view of LA and the US nearly as fresh as his incredible work in Paris, Texas.
The script, by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, based on Petievich's novel, is very good, featuring strong dialog, believable procedures, unusual situations, and an authentic undercurrent attributable to the fact that Petievich is a Treasury agent of long experience. The script is the starting point for Friedkin's thesis, that the line between cops and crooks is disturbingly thin, that it is very easy for a policeman to go too far, maybe for good reasons. Friedkin doesn't choose to make the facile observation that this is Bad. Rather, he and Petievich examine all the consequences, costs and payoffs.
Friedkin chose to cast To Live and Die in LA with largely unknown actors. William L. Petersen, a stage actor from Chicago, is excellent in his first screen role, as Chance. Petersen has a strong screen presence combined with great talent, a rare combination. William Dafoe, the villain from Streets of Fire, is extremely creepy as Masters. Dafoe will have to work hard to avoid being typecast as villains, given his odd features and intense manner. John Pankow is initially a bit weak in the role of Chance's partner, perpetually saying "Well, maybe we shouldn't do this." Fortunately, his character develops well in the second half of the film, giving Pankow the opportunity to show his talent. Dean Stockwell, the only real name in the cast, is good as a high-powered, totally unscrupulous lawyer. Stockwell has been the beneficiary of several good parts in the last few years (particularly Paris, Texas and Alsino and the Condor), and has demonstrated that he is not just another bland TV actor.
To Live and Die in LA is a superior action picture with enough meat to appeal to those who want more than chases and shootouts. Friedkin is definitely back on target after too long a dalliance with hopeless movies. Anyone who liked The French Connection is unlikely to be disappointed by To Live and Die in LA.
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