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William Friedkin's "To Live and Die in L.A."
November 4, 2011 8:26 PM   Subscribe

After 25 years I revisited To Live and Die In L.A. (1985), William Friedkin's cynical, fatalistic, hardboiled and high-energy crime noir about corruption and survival in the city of no angels. The script is literate, the characters are believable, the performances are brutally honest, the unpredictable twists keep coming, the action never stops, and the car chase is shot for real without any fake process. (spoilers)
posted by Trurl (60 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
Saw this movie ages ago (on Betamax!) and recall being very impressed with a certain ballsy twist (no spoilers!) that Friedkin pulled off toward the end.

Also, a friend of mine used to be hot and heavy with William Peterson.
posted by stargell at 8:40 PM on November 4, 2011


OK snap decision.
Tell me now so I can get this party started.
I loved Drive.
Do I want to watch this right now?
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:57 PM on November 4, 2011


Look closely at the "710" sequence of car chase, around the 6:48 mark: Peterson's not driving the wrong way. He's on the right. There's a CA 47 route marker on his side of the road. Everyone else is driving on the left -- the wrong way.
posted by kurumi at 8:59 PM on November 4, 2011


The car chase seems to work for me because it puts me in the driver's seat and keeps punching my instinctive "oh shit! I'm gonna hit something!" nerve.
posted by SPrintF at 8:59 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Someone tell me what to think!
posted by Senor Cardgage at 9:02 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I used to have one of those big cars. I kept waiting for them to stop for gas during the chase.
posted by showmethecalvino at 9:03 PM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Friedkin at peak could direct the fuck out of a movie. Those scenes in those two YouTube clips just amazingly beautifully done. I haven't scene this since it was in the theaters, need to check it out again soon.

Love your movie posts, trurl.
posted by octothorpe at 9:10 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Friedkin's awesome just for French Connection but Sorcerer is also a great remake.
posted by PHINC at 9:11 PM on November 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


This movie is noteworthy for featuring Willem Dafoe at arguably the most inept stage of his screen criminal career, hamhandedly running a small time counterfeiting operation with about a hundred times more random violence and overtly felonious activity than necessary. It is rivaled only by his character's epic failure as New York's most obvious hipster coke mule in Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper, in which he spends all his drug profit on cab fare and scarves.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 9:12 PM on November 4, 2011 [12 favorites]


WANG CHUNG!

That is all.

(always liked this movie, but more for nostalgic reasons)
posted by eyeballkid at 9:27 PM on November 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


I love William Petersen. I actually saw 'Manhunter' first and thought that this guy owns the screen. 'To Live and Die in LA' is no different. I can't put my finger on what he does so well. He just seems to pull you in to his world and makes you believe it.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:35 PM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Loved this movie when it first came out. Oddly enough, I just sought it out and watched in about a month ago. When I first saw it, I was fixated on the counterfeiting. The movie ages pretty well.

Don't know Drive, but watch this regardless.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:49 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


GLORIOUS WILLIAM PETERSEN HAIR.
posted by oflinkey at 9:52 PM on November 4, 2011


Senor Cardgage: yes, you do.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:54 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


What the uncanny fuck? I got done watching this film 30 seconds ago, load up MetaFilter, and this is on the front page... you're wearing a wire, aren't you buddy?
posted by troll at 9:54 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


So this isn't a post about 2pac?
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:05 PM on November 4, 2011


Damn I loved the bleak nihilism of this movie. Everyone is out to use everyone else.
posted by arse_hat at 10:05 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm in it right now.
Good flick so far.
Wang Chung's score is suprisingly UN-pop group (and reminds me a bit of Stewart Copeland's badass work on The Equalizer)
Petersen is great but is in the Red Zone a bit too often and it's dangerously close to David Caruso RPMs.
This is good stuff.

I wonder if a counterfeiter would care more or less about their money being stolen Vs. real money.

Would they care more because of their artistic connection?
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:06 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


You want bread, fuck a baker.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:09 PM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Do you believe that stars are the eyes of God?"

"No."
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 10:09 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Watched this film a couple weeks ago, and I have to say I'm still kicking myself a bit for not discovering it sooner. And if you liked this (and Drive), Thief (Michael Mann, 1981) and The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978) might be up your alley.
posted by Neilopolis at 10:14 PM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Fuck right. I watched The Driver the other night and am amazed it isn't more well known.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:18 PM on November 4, 2011


So David Caruso
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:21 PM on November 4, 2011


Ha the sauna scene!
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:34 PM on November 4, 2011


Goddamn, if this wasn't one of the most criminally underated movies of the 80's. This was my first introduction to noir and man, I got hooked on it.
posted by KingEdRa at 10:39 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]



I have very vivid memories of the rainy night in November '85 when I went to see this with my future wife at the newly opened Shoreline movie theater in Mountain View. It was like our third date, and the movie was so good and artfully tense that we both became engrossed in it and didn't say a word to each other and forgot to flirt for the duration.

Watching it now, it's odd to see Jane Leeves (Frasier) doing a nude scene.
posted by Devils Slide at 10:53 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Some previous discussion scattered in the summer's Underrated Movies thread beginning here. Direct link to the Cockeyed Caravan review.

One of the reasons it's so detailed about the counterfeiting -- Dafoe apparently reckoned he'd learned enough doing the opening montage to have a backup career -- is that the writer is a retired Secret Service agent (a family career: he and his brothers appear in the film as various federal agents). I read the book; it was OK, but not a Friedkin film.

In addition to early work by Petersen, in his first career bubble before it popped (alas), Dafoe, and John Pankow (later of Mad About You; probably relegated to comedic roles before his time due to the incipient male pattern baldness visible here), you also briefly see John Turturro, Dean Stockwell*, Robert Downey Sr.**, the flash-in-the-pan Darlanne Fluegel, and a wordless (and apparently "ethnic") blink-and-you-miss-it role for Jane Leeves. There's even an action cameo by Gary Cole.

* Weirdly, the Regrettable Sincerity review misidentifies well-known and distinctive Stockwell as the "too old for this" partner, whose death sets the plot into motion, but the actor was little-known Michael Greene.
** RD Sr.'s great contribution to the movies is his 1960s before-its-time but indubitably of-its-time satire Putney Swope. Think Bamboozled, but a lot more deadpan.


Things I love about this movie include the sound design -- the first time I really noticed it in a movie, I think -- and that's notable in the chase sequence. My heart began pounding even before the characters knew they were still being followed. Nice elements here include the holy clusterfuck of federals homing in on them; one of the things I often hate about movies is the fact that they miss how the greatest strength of law enforcement is its sheer overwhelming numbers, not some crackerjack driver or shot or forensic expert. Here it's played in a mirror for two guys who don't yet realize they're in over their heads. I like the way that Petersen at this point was just a tiny shade too pretty -- it works for Chance, in that you understand he's gotten away with shit because of that. I like the way that the WRONG WAY sign signals they've entered uncharted ethical territory. I love the way that Chance's residual boy scout shows in the way he honks and waves all the innocent bystanders out of his way.

Everyone else is driving on the left -- the wrong way.

I wonder if this is just to disorient the audience, as Friedkin apparently has claimed, or whether it symbolizes -- intentionally or not -- the worldview of Chance, that he lives in a world where everyone else is going the wrong way.

I like, at the end, not to spoil anything, you realize that the movie is in a way an origin story for Chance. (This is, I think, what the final shots are about.)

I can list a few things wrong with it. A lot of it is surface, no depth. Few characters have opportunities to really be human; they're mainly cutouts driving the story. The Arab terrorist cliche at the start is just one of many ridiculous Arab terrorists in the movies, and cheapens this film from the outset. (Not to mention, having experienced 9/11, the modern audience wonders what sort of security environment would exist in a world where a Presidential assassin blew up in the air outside his hotel. Not, one suspects, the one depicted in the film. Feels tacked on.) In the end, I don't totally buy Vukovich -- he's too grounded in reality to be iconicized the way Friedkin intends. One of many rather dull, seen-too-many-times moments is Chance and Vukovich's argument in the stairwell, much less adult than the situation they are actually in.

Anyway, despite its flaws it's edited superbly and there are some very telling moments.
posted by dhartung at 11:13 PM on November 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


"A lot of it is surface, no depth. Few characters have opportunities to really be human" I agree but I see this as a feature not a bug. It is not a character driven vehicle but rather a rude fuck you driven the wrong way into the Reagan era. Grab your share or get out of the way.
posted by arse_hat at 12:00 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


The final scene absolutely killed me.

"You're working for me, now."
posted by insulglass at 12:12 AM on November 5, 2011


I became obsessed with this movie not long after it came out. For years, I had no way of sharing my obsession with others. I finally got the VHS tape of it in about 1988, and recorded the soundtrack on cassette. Not the music, mind you, but the whole audio track. I would listen to it as I drove to work... I started to pick out audio looping, such as in the basketball scene.

Petersen became my favorite actor, with an excellent performance in Manhunter. I discovered various mail order fan resources, and purchased glossy photos.

The late 80's were the dry years, before the World Wide Web.

It took way too long for the DVD to be released, but it contained the crazy "alternate ending."
posted by Tube at 12:16 AM on November 5, 2011


I always have liked the titular song by Wang Chung. The official video shows some scenes from the movie.
posted by maxwelton at 12:24 AM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't care for The Driver but recommend Friends of Eddie Coyle, and The Gambler to those who liked To Live and Die in LA.
posted by dobbs at 12:41 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


We watched "Friends of Eddie Coyle" again a couple of weeks back. Another bleak but wonderful movie.
posted by arse_hat at 12:51 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I remember seeing this on Betamax too, except I was about 11 or 12 at the time.

I had no clue what was going on.

Maybe it's time to give it another look.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:58 AM on November 5, 2011


If you like this you may also want to check out Drive. Not the same but it should appeal.
posted by arse_hat at 1:15 AM on November 5, 2011



Great, underrated movie. This and Manhunter will slake a thirst for movies from the JBWWW (Just Before World Wide Web) era of history, and give you a nice William Petersen fix as well.

Order Thief as a digestif (no Petersen in that one, but James Caan could be framed as the William Petersen of his day).
posted by lon_star at 1:29 AM on November 5, 2011


Really a big fan of Thief. Gonna toss out Mona Lisa as good and The Long Good Friday as good british crime films and maybe The Cincinnati Kid and The Man With the Golden Arm as crime films people need to watch. Big name actors as small time crooks? Straight Time or Panic in Needle Park. If you like neo-noir check out Blood Simple or Red Rock West.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:16 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I watched it again pretty recently, after not seeing it for years, and whilst it now looks 80s as fuck it still holds up damn well.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:41 AM on November 5, 2011


Oh and Drive's great... my film of the year
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:42 AM on November 5, 2011


Loved this movie when it came out. Very dark. As above, also loved Manhunter - which spawned the whole Hannibal concept.
posted by greenhornet at 3:55 AM on November 5, 2011


Was that Ira from Mad About You?
posted by cropshy at 6:02 AM on November 5, 2011


I'm re-watching just now - thanks for the post!
posted by nj_subgenius at 6:22 AM on November 5, 2011


Oh I love this movie! William Petersen's jeans! This film is basically a 70's paranoia movie skeleton reworked with a slick 80's gloss over top, and it's so shiny and stylish you don't immediately realize just how grim and dark and cynical it is. Plus the direction and pacing are incredible. And the ending! Truly one of the best films of that decade.
posted by biscotti at 6:34 AM on November 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can't put my finger on what [Petersen] does so well. He just seems to pull you in to his world and makes you believe it.

Friedkin told his casting director, "I want someone who could slap his mother and you'd still root for him."

In addition to Manhunter, Petersen was also terrific in the made-for-HBO 1950s minor league baseball feature Long Gone.

Watching it now, it's odd to see Jane Leeves (Frasier) doing a nude scene.

Only in retrospect. At the time, she was best known as a "Hill's Angel".
posted by Trurl at 7:08 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am glad to see this flick getting some love. I've always liked it for a number of reasons, but the thing that sticks with me is the lighting - it's always sunset or sunrise, to the point of distraction, but it's just gorgeous.
posted by Xoebe at 8:37 AM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


In case anyone was wondering, it is available for instant streaming on Netflix.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:20 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I watched this again recently when it was on late at night and I couldn't sleep. I hadn't seen it in ages. Despite it's flaws, it holds up very well. Thanks for the post, Trurl.
posted by homunculus at 10:27 AM on November 5, 2011


biscotti: "William Petersen's jeans!"

What? No love for Willem Dafoe's kimono?
posted by Dr. Zira at 11:39 AM on November 5, 2011


As I mentioned in another thread:

There's a cool moment in To Live and Die when the counterfeit money presses start up, and the sound from them determines the rhythm for the Wang Chung song that starts up.

Also, I had a friend who dismissed this movie (which I loved) because the bad guy was named Rich Masters (it's actually 'Rick', but there may be a point there about heavy handedness).
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 12:01 PM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've been a fan of this since the 80's, and I've been preaching that it must be seen. I'm glad to see it here on the blue.

My thing to add is that this is the movie that Miami Vice (TV series and movie) always wanted to be, but never could. There's something so slick-ly false about Miami Vice that always kept me at a distance, but this flick sucks you right in.
posted by CarlRossi at 12:23 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Awesome movie. Thing I remember most is how much I loved the Wang Chung soundtrack ... and how shocked I was when their album came out and it was totally different.
posted by zomg at 1:43 PM on November 5, 2011


Watching it now, it's odd to see Jane Leeves (Frasier) doing a nude scene.

Only in retrospect. At the time, she was best known as a "Hill's Angel".


Thank you, God!
posted by stargell at 2:04 PM on November 5, 2011


We watched "Friends of Eddie Coyle" again a couple of weeks back. Another bleak but wonderful movie.

Amen to that.
posted by Kinbote at 4:38 PM on November 5, 2011


Love love love this "flick," and yes, those jeans, those jeans!
posted by thinkpiece at 4:59 PM on November 5, 2011


What? No love for Willem Dafoe's kimono?

That too! But it is just so low key when compared to those jeans. I am amazed there wasn't permanent damage.
posted by biscotti at 11:24 PM on November 5, 2011


Wow, part two of that driving chase, when they're going through the area with the unloading trucks ... I was breathing faster like I was being chased and running hard. Definitely the direction and the editing are a big part of what makes this scene effective.
posted by zippy at 4:06 AM on November 6, 2011


peterson is damn sexy, and i've liked seeing how that evolves over so many years. i love the film and think I discovered it because of something on metafilter.

i think my favorite element is how chance's death comes about so unexpectedly and suddenly, without some big dramatic build-up that tells you it's about to happen, or some drawn-out death scene. he's there and then he's not, and it defies the viewer's expectations all over the place.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 9:59 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


*ring*

"Hello?"

Uh, is (name) there?

"No."

Uh, who's this?

"The guy stealing his car."

*click*

posted by clvrmnky at 7:17 AM on November 7, 2011


OK snap decision.
Tell me now so I can get this party started.
I loved Drive.
Do I want to watch this right now?
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:57 PM on November 4


Drive was awesome. But To Live and Die in LA isn't. First, it doesn't date well, primarily because the plot twist is not at all surprising to anyone who has seen any cop thriller movies in the last 15 years.

Second, the soundtrack is performed by Wang Chung. Seriously.

Third, the car chase scene is weak, even by 80's standards. It isn't paced well, the driving is sloppy, and it drags on too long. Actually that sums up the movie. This is a seventies cop film shot, scored and set-dressed in the 80's.

To Live and Die in LA is a film that should have been directed by Michael Mann. Mann knows how to pause the action in an action movie. And there is no director on earth who knows how to shoot LA like Mann. Michael Mann shoots LA like it's a principal character in the film.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:35 AM on November 7, 2011


And to make it clear: If you like 1980's William Petersen, and you want a good thriller, and you want Michael Mann, watch Manhunter.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:40 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


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