William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. is a classic of the 1980’s that has slipped under the radar, and was part of William Friedkin’s down period, where he no longer had the respect or honor that came from the Oscar winning French Connection or the mega-hit The Exorcist. And yet his films after those two are much more interesting and colorful, but the flop of Sorcerer and controversy of Cruising seemed to taint the director, and his best film was able to seem like a plea to be paid attention to again. William Peterson stars with Willem Dafoe in one of the best cop movies ever made. My review of To Live and Die in L.A. on Blu-ray after the jump.
Petersen stars as Richard Chance, a U.S. Secret Service agent who becomes obsessed with catching master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Dafoe) after Masters kills his partner. Now working with the straight-laced John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance gets closer to Masters by catching one of his money-mules, Carl Cody (John Turturro), but Cody won’t talk – even after Masters hires goons to whack him in prison. However, the closer Chance and Vukovich get on Masters’ trail, the more obvious it becomes that Chance is unstable – he cuts corners and blurs the lines when it comes to procedure. Masters, on the other hand, is a cool-headed aesthete with beautiful redhead dancer for a girlfriend (Debra Fruer), and spends his off-hours working on his numerous paintings, which he always ends up burning (as he did in The French Connection, Friedkin draws class distinctions between the cops and criminals). A contact from Masters’ lawyer Bob Grimes (Dean Stockwell) gets the two Secret Service agents a meeting with the mastermind, but to ensnare him they need $30,000 in cash to earn his confidence – Masters is well aware that the agency will not allow more than $10,000 in bait-money for a bust. It’s when Chance’s girlfriend Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) hears of an illicit diamond deal with a $50,000 payoff that Chance and Vukovich break ranks with their superiors, and the law itself.
It’s the hunt for the briefcase packed with $50,000 in cash in To Live and Die in L.A. that leads to what may be the greatest car chase in the history of cinema – or at least, it’s only rivaled by the two chases in John Frankenheimer’s Ronin and Gene Hackman’s ride in Friedkin’s own French Connection. It’s a great set-piece, but Friedkin also is able to link the event to both the plot and the characters. Though born of film noir, there’s something almost perverse about Friedkin’s cop movies – the main characters take risks and make mistakes, Friedkin has a strong fascination with darkest recesses of good men. The two agents become common thieves to get their hands on bait-money their own agency won’t provide them, the only logical conclusion for the aptly named Chance. William Petersen got two big breaks playing cops early on in his career, with both this film and Michael Mann’s Manhunter, which effectively set the stage for his later television success in “CSI.” He’s a commanding lead, and one who (as Friedkin notes on the commentary) is chasing death itself. Dafoe is likewise excellent as the cultivated Masters, who obviously is the obverse side of the coin, while the rest of the cast is filled out with strong supporting players, including a great early appearance by John Turturro. Working from a novel by ex-Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, To Live and Die in L.A. knows its beat, and one feels that Friedkin has achieved something authentic, while still retaining his own cinematic sensibilities – making it both one of the great cop-films and one of Friedkin’s best.
MGM presents the film on Blu-ray in widescreen (1.85:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD. The disc only comes with a trailer for the movie and bonus trailers, but the transfer is a 1080p improvement on the DVD release. The transfer is fine, it’s a step up from the DVD, but it is very much a film of period. The DVD is also helpful included, and it has an insightful commentary by Friedkin, who is engaging throughout as he discusses the film and his own tastes (in contemporary cinema, he says he loves Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman for their odd turns). It’s one of the rare commentaries where Friedkin is engaged and has no problem delving into both motivations and the nuts-and-bolts of his shooting style. The commentary is complemented by the documentary “Counterfeit World” (30 min.), which features Friedkin, stars William Petersen, John Pankow, Willem Dafoe, and Darlanne Fluegel, editor and co-producer Bud Smith, and stunt driver Buddy Joe Hooker. Also included are two featurettes about an alternative ending and a deleted scene (both of which can be watched with or without introductions), stills, and trailer galleries.