Classic Flix Review: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Greetings, all and sundry! I am going to take a step sideways and count some coup. Regarding a few recent minor victories involving films that come very close to or exceed ‘Required Viewing’ status. I’m thrilled that my recent labor of love entailing ‘The French Connection’ tempted Ruth and others to enjoy its gritty suspenseful wonders. So, I am going to push my luck and proffer a similar, later work by William Friedkin. Very strong in the ‘Partner film’ vein I’d touched on in ‘The French Connection‘. With a change of locales, crime and really, not a whole heck of a  lot more. Allow me to introduce::

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Our story begins with a Presidential visit to the City of Angels and a huge motorcade of long black limousines rolling up on a huge, palatial, opulent hotel. In and amongst the countless guys with suits, bulges on their hips and under their armpits is anonymous Secret Service Agent Richard Chance. Magnificently played by William Petersen in his first major role before Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Petersen’s Chance plays close to the edge and earns himself a transfer after he helps foil a terrorist plot to blow up an unseen President Reagan during a fundraising speech.

Cut to a deserted highway heading east to the sunny deserts of Las Vegas and about ten of the finest minutes devoted to the meticulous nuts and bolts dirty work of forging one twenty dollar bill into tens of thousands. From the cutting and substitution of the serial number. To the proper mixing of inks and pigments. Setting the rollers on a massive multiple press. Photographing the bill for the press and setting it as the plate. Then watching a young, hungry, pre-Platoon Willem Dafoe, finally throw the switch and make magic happen!

Dafoe portrays Eric Masters. Artist, con man, counterfeiter extraordinaire. With equal measures of socio and psychopath blended in to make him even more interesting. Masters fronts a few Art Houses and runs a sizable string of inner city and urban clients to spread his bills around. Bills that look so good that they are hard to trace and thus, have his fingerprints and handiwork all over them.

Bills that inevitably come under the scrutiny of the Secret Service Counterfeit Division. Agent Chance and his soon to be retired partner, Michael Greene. Who really wants to bust Masters before pulling the pin. Chance, who now faces his inner fears by Bungee Jumping bridges, wants Greene to be patient. Greene thinks otherwise. Finds Masters’ Vegas workshop and is ambushed by a 12 gauge shotgun for his efforts.

Of course, every cop and Fed from miles around converges on the site. Chance finds Greene’s body in a dumpster. Plus a handful of poker chips in one of several clothes dryers used to age newly printed bills. Now, Chance has a singular mission. One that takes precedence over such paltry things as rules and regulations. Worse yet, Chance is saddled with a relatively new, bright and shiny, by the book, untainted partner, John Vukovich. Given low key, yet impeccable life by John Pankow in very likely his best work in film.

To say that these two dislike each other would be understatement. Vukovich is career oriented. While Chance wants a steaming hot cup of Payback. Regardless of the cost. Warrants are sought on somewhat shaky ground for wiretaps and camera surveillance on Masters’  and others’ upscale digs. While Masters connects with his urban clients who want more of his product and are unwilling to pay for the last batch. Battle lines are being drawn as Chance and Vukovich get a lead on one of Masters’ mules and take him down after a brisk foot chase that ends in an LAX men’s room.

The mule, John Turturro. Rarely better. Knows to keep his mouth shut. To a point. He tells Chance a little of this and a little of that and is put in General Population for his efforts. Only to have to sit through a later tête-à-tête with Masters to assess what damage was done. Masters returns to his urban client and fronts half of a large chunk of money for the client to arrange to have the mule shanked while awaiting arraignment. That attempt fails and Masters returns and wants his money back. NOW! The client doesn’t have it. Masters kills the client and two lieutenants with a silenced pistol. Cleans up. Then gathers up his loot.

Cut to the house under surveillance. Where Masters bisexual girlfriend, Bianca. Smoderingly played by Debra Feuer, lies in wait. Not for Masters, but slimy, deal making L.A. distributor and money launderer, Max Waxman. Who tried to set Masters up and has welched on more than one deal. Masters find them in a compromising position. Takes whatever clean money Waxman has and dispatches him with the same silenced pistol. Then burns what’s left of the old funny money before starting anew.

In the interim, Chance hatches a plot, whose initial gossipy kernel is supplied by his parolee, informant girlfriend. Ruth. Flawlessly, scuzzily played by Darlanne Fleugel. Chance wants to make a buy from Masters, but the Federal coffers for such a deal are far short. Enter the gossip. A diamond buyer is coming to L.A. with a briefcase full of money for a handful of uncut rocks. The buy is to take place under an overpass of the Freeway. All Chance and Vukovich have to do is steal the briefcase. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, evidently. The deal is real, but the buyer is an FBI agent going after the forerunners of Blood Diamonds. The buyer arrives. Chance and Vukovich jack him up and get the case. Just as an FBI sniper fires too late and takes out the undercover agent. A gun fight ensues that turns into a superb, spine chilling, seat jumping chase as Chance and Vukovich take their car against traffic. Over hill and through the market and truck farm district to the viaducts last seen and well utilized in the movie, Them!. Before eluding their pursuers and finding a no questions asked Auto Body shop for a new rear window and windshield.

Shaken, stirred, but not rattled, Chance and Vukovich set up their meet at the L.A. Athletic Club. Masters is leery of Chance and Vukovich’s lack of tans and their story of fronting for a Palm Springs bank, but he is intrigued. Buy in money, to the tune of a cool million is mentioned and agreed to by the Feds without batting an eyes as another meet is set up.

I will leave it right here due to the Prime Directive regarding spoilers

Now, what Makes This Film Good?

Friedkin again catching the lightning experienced in The French Connection. Again working with a young and relatively unknown cast eager to work with a proven director. Using some of the same tricks learned long ago and applying them to sections of  L.A. that few people know and even fewer see. Presenting a gritty, grimy facade that masks the sleazy world of unmentioned, greedy and bent lawyers and judges. Who supply the undertone and a lot of the motivation of those doing dirty deeds and the lawmen who pursue them.

Do NOT let the Wang Chung soundtrack upset or put you off. The music is exactly of its time. And works exceedingly well in keeping the suspense at just the right tone as Chance leads his wide eyed partner, Vukovich deep into the slimy underbelly of the beast. Where suspicion is second nature and paranoia is plane fare.

Cinematography by Robby Muller is first rate. Showing the pervasive smog of the cityscape in many scenes. Ornery, obstinate and rarely anxious to move. Setting the down pressured tone that things are very different on the West Coast. Then shifting to crystal clarity for indoor scenes. Not showing many shadows, but when they do show up. They are there for tension heightening reasons. Editing by M. Scott Smith is also superb. Especially in the chase scene that leaves very little on the Cutting Room Floor.

Kudos to Lilly Kilvert’s Production Design and getting abandoned buildings to look like Federal office spaces. Also Set Design and Decoration handled by Buddy Cone and Cricket Rowland. For making the outbacks of Vegas and beaches and businesses outside Venice look so formidable and forgotten!

What Makes This Film Great?

William Petersen just beginning to show off his chops in an extremely meaty role that has been visited many times before in countless films. While following William Petievich’s twisting, turning, never arrow straight novel and screenplay with William Friedkin’s help. Petersen’s Rick Chance is no angel. Though he may have been before the Presidential visit that put him in charge of tracking down one particular counterfeiter. Given personal Carte Blanche, Chance is willing to bend and sometimes break the rules. Even if it sends his partner screaming to find a lawyer to protect his career. Petersen’s Chance seems made for his regulation breaking jeans, T Shirt, boots and leather jacket. Opposite Vukovich’s buttoned down collar, tie and  two and three piece suits.

John Pankow owns his role as John Vukovich. A brand new FNG who is willing to follow his partner. Even after the wheels come off with the disastrous diamond deal. Letting his eyes and body language do the talking on his personal sojourn through the seven circles of Hell. To rise like the Phoenix on the other side. A truly great role very masterfully imagined and delivered!

The unnamed ladies and gentlemen in attendance. From Dean Stockwell’s superbly slimy lawyer, Bob Grimes. Who revels in playing both sides in the never ending game. While not being averse to taking a bribe as well as a retainer. To Steve James as Masters’ urban connection, Jeff Rice. All muscle and bad attitude. It’s a treat to watch him trying to get over and intimidate Masters. As well as Robert Downey Sr., who makes the absolute most of his brief time on screen as a judge who tolerates Chance. While wanting nothing more than to crush him.

The ladies deserve equal billing. Debra Feuer mystifies from the moment she appears on screen. Though not fully realized until well into the film. Her Bianca can read men as easily as others glance at coins and count change. She is made for Masters. Offering insights that to her are obvious and several moves into the future of the game. Darlanne Fluegel’s Ruth is perfect as a fidgety, scared, two time loser, parolee and Chance’s personal snitch. Too clever for her own good. While hoping her nightmare will end someday. Also turning in a silent, sensual performance is Jane Leeves. In her first credited role as Bianca’s girlfriend, Serena. Long before her role as Daphne in Frasier.

The Film’s Mystique:

Once Friedkin has bought the novel’s rights. The US Secret Service got involved far beyond the technical advice offered by retired agent Petievich. Invited to watch the rushes and first cuts, the Service nearly went ballistic. And not in a good way! While watching Dafoe go through the too detailed and not for general consumption steps in making large numbers of counterfeit bills. I’m still trying to figure out how much was left on the Editor’s floor and probably burned later.

That aside. The film rings remarkably true. The dialogue snaps without a large amount of profanity. Most everything the cast touches looks used and comfortable. Even Masters’ leather and chrome flat appears inviting without a shred of pretense. The film is also notable for the unexpected and often invited ‘Murphy’s Law’ that upsets even the most meticulous plan. Especially after Masters cleans up and takes out Max Waxman and even more so in the botched diamond buy, shakedown, rolling shoot out and car chase.

Not surprisingly, To Live and Die in L.A. won awards for Best Vehicular Stunt and Most Spectacular Sequence in 1986.


Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews


What do you think of To Live and Die in L.A.? Do share ‘em in the comments.

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18 thoughts on “Classic Flix Review: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

  1. Another great review Jack, this was probably Friedkin’s last good movie that he made. Take away the 80s clothes and music, this was a great thriller that will fit in any decade. I won’t spoil anything but I didn’t see that certain scene coming at all the first time I saw it, I’m sure you know which scene I’m referring to.

    • Welcome, Ted!

      Thanks for coming by and starting the conversation.

      I didn’t see it coming, either. A superb and shocking introduction for Pankow’s John Vukovich’s last line in the film. As Darlanne Fleugel’s Ruth is hurriedly packing and trying to get the heck out of Dodge.

      I’ll agree with your opinion that ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ is perhaps Friedkin’s last great film. Though I’ve yet to catch his direction of ’12 Angry Men’ made for television in 1997. Its cast alone sound more than worth the price of admission!

      • I’ve never seen 12 Angry Men so I might check it out myself. The last film I saw that Friedkin directed was the Rambo riff off The Hunted, which was kind of dreadful to sit through.

  2. Hi

    I think I owe you a comment from a film you did last week or a couple of weeks ago. Until then …

    I only remember the promotion for this film. I think I was too young at the time to appreciate what type of film this is. Seems rather 80’s noir-ish.

    I had not even realized that Friedkin directed this.

    I guess it is worth a (re)watch …

    • Hi, iluv:

      Thanks for taking a look around!

      I don’t remember any previews at the theaters for this film. And only a few that were on television before it came and went within a two week period here around DC.

      ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ was much more of a seek it out on then VHS kind of title and film. Mostly due to Friedkin directing a cast of unknowns, but it is definitely worth looking up on DVD!

  3. You have a knack for reviewing movies I haven’t seen Jack :D This one of those flicks I definitely have to check, even before I read your excellent review. Great anecdote about the Secret Service disapproval of this film!

    • Hi, Castor:

      Thanks for dropping by!

      Friedkin had hired some counterfeiters who had paid their debt to society to kibitz and make sure the printing scene was as close to real as legally possible. A great, meticulous piece of film that’s worth the price of seeking out.

      One story has it that a small number of printed bills for the film made their way to the streets. Though, they were easy to check and recover, due to a large black X placed over the Treasury seal.

    • Welcome, Dave!

      The car chase against traffic has more seat jumps and squirms than most I’ve seen. What’s cool about it is, that I read that the chase was the last scene filmed. Because Friedkin wanted to be sure all the work was done and in the can should there have been an accident.

      It also excels due to there being two in the car. Petersen and Pankow. The way they react adds a touch of authenticity that’s missing in either ‘Bullitt’ or ‘The French Connection’. The use of the viaducts I’d last seen in ‘Them!’ was a very nice touch.

      Also, after filming. John Pankow was having a few drinks at a cop bar and a seasoned veteran assured Pankow that his freaking out and screaming during the chase was completely in line with how any cop would have behaved.

      • I remember reading that either the director of photography or stunt coordinator left the film because they thought Friedkin was crazy for wanting to shoot that car chase scene. I thought it was definitely better than the chase in The French Connection and Bullit.

        • Hi, Ted:

          Great catch!

          The original stunt driver left before the chase scene, citing safety issues. Buddy Joe Hooker, (Great Name!) spent weeks watching traffic flows and finding places to shoot from before getting behind the wheel.

          What’s great about the chase scene is that there’s no real trick photography and the only cars going fast are Chance’s and the chasing Feds. Another treat is using the viaducts for the brief shoot out and ambush that’s away from civilians before Chance and Vukovich get away.

  4. Excellent article Kevin. William Friedkin’s career remains far too limited but you’re totally right about discovering those films that aren’t as well known as The Exorcist and French Connection. I think he’s a terrific director, just wish he had made more films.

    • Hi, Dan:

      Thanks so much!

      I’ve been wondering when you’d add to the discussion.

      Friedkin will always to remembered for ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Excorcist’. Though his body of work is consistently better than most and definitely worth exploring.

      I’m intrigued by his newest, ‘Killer Joe’. Which has the look and feel of an old
      Joe R. Lansdale, west Texas, middle of nowhere, murder mystery brought to life.

      • Hey Jack, I forgot to ask, did you like Sorcerer, his remake of Wage of Fear? I read that the film was pretty much the reason why Friedkin’s took a downward spiral. I thought it was a good film but it failed probably because people thought it was some sort of a super natural thriller but found out it was a film about guys trying to survive.

        • Hi, Ted.

          I was one of those thinking ‘Sorcerer’ was going to be something other than what it was. A great, sweaty remake of ‘Wages of Fear’. Roy Scheider quietly rocks his role in a tense man against nature/fate, Guy Flick.

          Sadly, the film didn’t click and it kept Friedkin riding the pine and proving his worth until ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ rolled around. Proving obliquely that the choice of a title carries weight in a film.

  5. Awesome review as always Jack! I’m hoping to see this movie this weekend as Ted lent me the Blu-ray. I’ve always loved William Petersen and I really like his performance in Manhunter. Sounds like I will enjoy this one very much. It’s funny to see Dean Stockwell in slimy/villainy roles as he played Gregory Peck’s cute little boy in not one but TWO films :)

    • Hi, Ruth!

      Thanks for having the chance to wax poetic and nostalgic about one of Friedkin’s best. That threads the needle of great suspense/thriller, Partner and overall Guy Flick.

      Dean Stockwell steals every scene he’s in. No matter how brief. Definitely a flick composed of many memorable, often unintended humorous scenes offset by instants of shocking terror. Pulled off by a cast who are more than up for the task.

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