To Live and Die in L.A – 1985 – dir. William Friedkin

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, few directors enjoyed the dual critical and popular acclaim William Friedkin did; his French Connection still jumps and crackles like a pan of hot popcorn. The Exorcist (one of the few films of the ’70s so controversial as to merit being picketed by Catholic and Decency League interest groups) still has the power to shock. Both are classics in the canon of American cinema. If To Live and Die in L.A. is not considered to be in their league, it should be.

Though the cast is fine, Los Angeles itself is the star of this show. Friedkin’s is not an L.A. anyone would want to move to, no Grauman’s Chinese Theater/Hollywood Bowl/Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for his audiences. Hot and slovenly and spare, this is a city of sleazy corner bars, tipsy barmaids, backroom deals,
psychedelic greens and neons. Edward Hopper would be (and was) happy here and several scenes pay homage to that great artist’s work.

In this movie, Friedkin makes it his business to own L.A. and, dare I say it, brings a splendor to its bleak and seamy neighborhoods, its ruined and polluted streets. The film pulsates with an in-your-face bravado, and the androgynous swagger seen and felt here is no mistake. At the time of its release, it reflected a cool, current ’80s L.A. Now, 23 years later, it has become a moving cultural history book of that decade’s fashions, dance styles, hairdos, music. You half-expect Ziggy Stardust to be listed as producer!

In the anything-goes world of Friedkin’s criminals, no kind of violence or sex stays closeted: the dumpster sneakily leaking blood, a freshly-murdered man, his pants down, two trains racing crazily behind him, as full of motion as he is motionless; the famous car chase (Friedkin had a genius for these), a dizzying bridge… Friedkin seldom softens his lens or lets up on the action, save for a couple of scenes of harborlights at dusk or dawn, mute boats floating on a dock and the shiny streamlines of silver-plated vehicles. These scenes are beautifully quiet. But they come few and far between.

And the sex: a woman, in preparation for it, slowly puts her clothes ON as her partner slowly takes his OFF. Erotic as anything!   A motionless mannequin of a hooker, coked out of her skull, spread eagle in a corner
of a couch (is this a person or a big, plastic doll?), a shot of Willem Dafoe kissing a man who turns out to be a woman.  These images, so common in similarly-themed films of today, were, in the ’80s, stunningly and graphically new, raw in their power to thrill and titillate.

The actors here shine: Willem Dafoe, a fine perfomer, who was at the top of his game in the ’80s, here seems dangerous and genderless in a way few film villains knew how to be; his pan-sexual energy fairly
jumps out at you from the screen. He LIKES spitting in the face of a guy whose brains he’s just blown away. He LIKES double-crossing  his cronies. He is mean to the bone and just as erotically ugly. Small wonder both men and women fell for him in his day. He arms his character with a comic and a non-comic homoerotic aura. This dude doesn’t mess around!  Though Marlon Brando never lost any sleep because William
Petersen was in the movies, he (Petersen) had that no-nonsense, anything-is-allowed-when-going-after-criminals attitude, the poker face, the monotone voice that made him perfect for playing a cop. Oh! And the always welcome crazy John Turturro!

The film boasts a treasure trove of little gems that make you glad there are movies:
— an androgynous art dealer dwarf in a wheelchair. (Friedkin’s L.A. is peopled with endearing freaks).
— the visual joke of (literally) laundered money
— the space capsule sports car (Are the Jetsons visiting L.A. for the summer?)
— a face, shattered by bullets, suddenly not a face anymore.

I won’t reveal the marvelous last half hour but…listen for the lines, “a minor tie-up on the freeway” and “you shouldn’t do this to me”, and get ready for an ending sure to knock your cinephile’s socks off. KA-BOOM!!!

Leo Racicot Written by: