Some iconic L.A. films – Rebel Without a Cause, Zabriskie Point, Chinatown, Annie Hall – relish the city. A sprawling urban metropolis built up of drastically different neighborhoods, a skyline defined downtown and dozens of notable landmarks; Los Angeles is inherently cinematic. Perhaps best unpacked in Thom Anderson’s equally sprawling documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, the city didn’t just give us movies, it became them. Which makes William Friedkin’s depiction of the city in the 1985 neo-noir To Live and Die in L.A. that much more enigmatic.
In his memoir The Friedkin Connection, Friedkin says “I wanted to portray the city with no landmarks, no iconic skylines or neighborhoods.” Basically removing L.A. from L.A., Friedkin leaves us with a nearly endless landscape of concrete, palm trees, and mostly downtrodden vistas better suited for a post-apocalyptic narrative than the more vibrant crime cinema of its contemporaries set in the same city. Friedkin enlisted cinematographer Robbie Müller to achieve this, saying:
I had seen Paris, Texas by the German director Wim Wenders, photographed by an Austrian cinematographer, Robbie Müller. His films were beautifully lit and composed, with long uninterrupted takes. This was the style I wanted for To Live and Die In L.A., in which the city would be portrayed as a violent, cynical wasteland under a burning sun.
This stylistic choice greatly separates To Live and Die In L.A. from similar, L.A.-set genre films of the time like Breathless (1983), Sudden Impact, Body Double, and Into the Night; films in which their narratives are arguably informed by the city rather than in defiance of it like in Friedkin’s film. The more lackadaisical freedom of something like Breathless or the seemingly endless urban journey of Into the Night instead give way to a city teeming with squalor, backed up traffic and no real landmarks in sight in To Live and Die in L.A. It’s as if the film could take place anywhere – title notwithstanding – until you get submerged in the city’s smog with glints of harsh neon poking through.
Friedkin said he wanted an L.A. that was portrayed as violent and cynical and if he doesn’t achieve that via Müller’s photography of the city, he does so in the bountiful cynicism and violence in the story. More than the other L.A. films mentioned above, Friedkin’s film is full of unsavory characters behaving savagely without much comeuppance. Even the heroes here are dirty. The violence, including splattery point blank gun shots to the head, are rendered vividly thanks to the beautiful lighting and compositions that Friedkin expected from Müller and the much celebrated car chase (which Müller didn’t shoot due to a lack of confidence in controlling the light) turns the established wasteland into a stylized demolition derby.
Since the release of To Live and Die In L.A. there have been countless movies shot in the city and most avoid the cynical wasteland aesthetic of Friedkin’s film, but some have embraced it, including the actually apocalyptic Miracle Mile and They Live. As much as being a great crime film and featuring an iconic chase sequence, To Live and Die In L.A. is a great L.A. film – not because of what Friedkin shows us of the city, but what he doesn’t.