Classic Double Feature: Shadow of a Doubt (1943) & Compulsion (1959)

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Greetings, all and sundry!

Allow me a few moments of your time in indulge the nostalgia of my youth. And broach a topic very close to my some may say, misspent early years.

The Classic Double Feature.

Usually reserved for Saturday matinees in the more austere theaters of the day. More often than not, theme or actor based. And superior quality. Genres of films selected was seasonal. With westerns and action popular in the summer. While offerings in Film Noir, horror, mystery and science fiction slated for fall through spring.

There is a method to the madness in the films I’ve selected. Both are films worthy of note and curiosities to our hostess, Ruth. Who desires to learn more of the works of master craftsman, Alfred Hitchcock and perpetual actor, Dean Stockwell. While the choice of which film leads is one which has plagued theater managers since the invention of celluloid. To that end. Allow me to introduce an early work from the British master. With equal parts drama and suspense layered over idyllic, quaint, rural life in a small west coast town.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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A film that begins in sunny, always fair weather Santa Rosa, California. Home to many families who keep the banks, shops and stores busy. One family in particular, the Newtons; father, Joseph (Henry Travers). Mother, Emma (Patricia Coolidge). Youngest son, Roger (Charles Bates). Middle daughter, Ann (Edna Mae Wonacott). And eldest, approaching awkward teen daughter, Charlotte (Teresa Wright) or “Charlie”. Go through their daily routine of work, school, keeping house, while Charlie eloquently wishes that something, anything would happen.

That occurs when a telegram arrives announcing that Mother’s younger brother, Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten). All calm, placid charm and deeply buried malevolence. Will be arriving on the Thursday evening train. Uncle Charles arrives. Dinner is had. Gifts are given and the first inklings of psychological thriller starts making itself known. Where most of the family see Charles as a welcome guest. Young Charlie sees her uncle as something more. Someone worldly and romantic  A man of mystery who says little about and is trying to stay ahead of his past. For good reason.

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Life continues near serenely. Until two detectives drop by to talk to the family. One detective, Jack Graham, (Macdonald Carey) tells Charlie that her uncle may be one of two men known suspected of being “The Merry Widow Murderer”. Who court older women, marries them. Then collects their insurance money and any other expensive things after their untimely, often strange, questionable deaths.

Charlie doesn’t want to believe, at first. But Uncle Charles makes a few awkward, almost embarrassing mistakes that turn heads and focuses attention in public places. And Charlie, being female and just slightly less curious than a cat. Finds small clues and evidence that lends credence to Jack Graham’s cautionary words. Topped off when Uncle Charles, perhaps a bit drunk and full of himself goes on tear about the rich in general, Rich widows in particular. And his contempt for them.

The cat is let out of the bag later, when Charles confronts his niece. Accusations are tossed around and Charles admits that he is the man the police are after. And then begs Charlie for her help. She concedes, but only on the condition that Uncle Charles
leave as soon as possible. Ironically, Uncle Charles is cut a break and some breathing room to pursue his latest mark. When the other suspect is killed in a running gunfight in Portland, Maine.

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Young Charlie becomes a loose end that needs attention. In the form of a few odd “accidents” involving stair cases and the faulty lock on a garage door. Keeping young Charlie inside while the sheltered car is left with its engine running. The laws of probability are catching up to Uncle Charles. Who announces that he is leaving by train to San Francisco. In the company of a young widow. Uncle Charles schemes to have a final showdown with young Charlie between cars. As the train starts to move and begin its journey.

I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers sakes….

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

Alfred Hitchcock just getting familiar with the idea of playing with new, near perfect settings. Then playfully tweaking and twisting the American small town ideas, dreams and families. By infusing an often charming dose of “Something wicked this way comes!” in the shape of Charles Oakley. A cypher upon which any story can be painted. Until he becomes too comfortable. And projects his disdain for others upon his brother in law, Joseph. Hinting that Joseph could not possibly be averse to embezzling funds from the bank where he works. Inside the bank and within earshot of others!

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Just one of many soliloquies. Delivered with the same wide eyed, calm innocence Mr. Cotten tapped into earlier as best friend and conscience, Jedidiah Leland, in “Citizen Kane”. Only this time it works to his character’s benefit and is a little creepy to take in. Verbal wedged planted between friends that misdirect and distract and create slack for Uncle Charlie to play with.

While Teresa Wright is the personification of budding teenage womanhood. Too smart by half. Driven by emotions that run deep and wild beneath the surface. Who lets her words pull her into the intrigue. While not knowing what is on the other end. Her
younger siblings, Roger and Ann form a sort of Greek Chorus when the family is gathered together. Though Ann is also far too smart for her young age. Young Charlie’s mother and father are content to get by and preserve the American Dream. Even as Emma starts to see her beloved younger brother as someone she doesn’t really know.

What Makes This Film Great?

The town of Santa Rosa, California. That is just big enough and prosperous enough to illustrate small town America. With its tree-lined streets. large houses, well cared for lawns. Slightly out of era cars and tracks and smiling traffic cops. Which would be used again in “Pollyanna” and “Some Came Running”.

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Here. it represents the perfect summer weather Petri Dish to reveal cracks in its characters and secrets revealed with the addition of Mr. Cotten’s often too arrogant Charles Oakley. Given more emphasis through Thornton Wilder’s written words and Joseph A. Valentine’s often shadowy indoor and tight, razor sharp B&W outdoor cinematography. Aided by Dimitri Tiomkin‘s suspenseful score and music direction by Charles Previn. Set and art direction by Russell Gausman and John B. Goodman. Plus gowns and ensembles that are neither too frumpy or too elegant by Vera West and Adrian add to both story telling and an almost time capsule feel and effect.

Then there is Hitchcock. Gently tugging at the edges. Keeping the canvas of the tale and town taut. While slyly nicking there and slicing there. Letting nature do its thing and follow the path of least resistance. As the myth of rural solitude and serenity bares its all too human weaknesses. Perhaps, not a date film. But certainly one to indulge in to see the first confident steps of a sly, masterful director hinting at greater things to come!

Notes: Nominated and accepted into the National Film Registry in 1991.
Available for viewing on You Tube


Compulsion (1959)

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As is traditional with film distribution. The second film of a Double Bill or Feature should be of lesser stature and lower budget. Hence the phrase “B-Movie”. And this offering from 20th Century has that writ large. Though wisely and frugally spent in telling the tale of the infamous Loeb & Leopold “Perfect Crime’ kidnap and murder case of 1924. With the help of Meyer Levin, who had written the best selling novel of the same name the film is based on. And aided by Richard Murphy‘s faithful screenplay.

Centered around two Chicago law students with off the scale IQs and a completely less than healthy reverence for the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and his “Man and Superman” hypothesis. The Alpha of the pair is Arthur Strauss. Played with snide, very spoiled, well connected arrogance by Bradford Dillman. Who doesn’t have any friends. And not much use for people in general as he constantly looks for ways to show his elite superiority to others. Their perceived inferiority and uselessness of their laws that are beneath his contempt.

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Artie’s partner in crime is Judd Steiner. Masterfully under and occasionally overplayed by a young Dean Stockwell. A self-imposed outcast who enjoys Ornithology, Taxidermy and deep down inside wants badly to be part of something. Oddly gravitating towards Dillman’s Strauss with near gleeful, sometimes clumsy subservient abandon.

Their first “perfect crime” which begins the sharply rendered film sets the stage for future events. With the breaking into a campus Fraternity house and taking sixty seven dollars, odd jewelry and a second hand manual Underwood typewriter with a
broken letter key. Fleeing in Judd’s Stutz Bearcat convertible, Judd starts hitting his flask while Artie drives off and nearly sideswipes a drunken pedestrian on a lonely stretch of road. Artie chides Judd for drinking and continues to needle Judd. Very
much like a married couple with an abusive husband. Until Judd nearly breaks down into tears. Swearing that he would do any thing to make things right. Artie smiles and tells Judd to turn around, drive and hit the drunk. Artie tries, but swerves at the last
second. Giving Artie an ever bigger, subtle psychological weapon with which to bludgeon Judd. As the two continue into the night.

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Comes the morning and Judd is in class arguing Nietzsche with his law professor as another player enters the fray, Sid Brooks. (Young, fresh faced and freckled, Martin Milner) A middle class student who pays his freight as a reporter on the Bulldog (late) edition of the local Chicago paper. Who stumbles across Artie and Judd as they set up an alibi with a group of other students and girlfriends to cover the next step in their “cold, dispassionate experiment”. The alibi is a get together at a speak easy that Artie found earlier. The time, nine o’clock.

Sid begs off, due to his job. And several unique and tragic events fall into place between that afternoon and night. Sid clocks in and finds that’s there is a drowned boy in the city morgue. And that a ransom note has arrives at the Kessler home. Demanding ten thousand dollars in old fifty and twenty dollar bills. Sid’s boss, Tom Daley (Edward Binns) sends Sid to the morgue. Where the child, later identified as Paul Kessler had been beaten and mutilated before being stuffed in a drainage culvert. Sid also finds a pair of round lenses reading glasses with the body. The glasses fit neither Sid or the boy. So Sid calls his boss and the wheels start coming off the “dispassionate experiment”.

The body is identified by the boy’s father. Sid’s boss, Mr. Daley shows up at the morgue and is brought up to speed by Sid. The glasses are put in safe keeping before being turned over to the police. All the makings of a wonderful night of celebration for Sid. Even if his girlfriend, Ruth Evan (Diane Varsi) is in Judd’s company. Sid mentions the glasses and Judd’s hand immediately goes to his suit coat’s empty breast pocket. Artie asks for more details and nearly explodes when Sid mentions the ransom note’s broken, offset letter.

Made even worse as Artie discovers that Judd still has the typewriter! After three days of trying to misdirect the Chicago cops assigned to the case. Which causes a cascade of accusations and weak counter arguments from Judd. Another experiment is agreed upon to prove Judd’s dispassion for others. And Sid in particular. Artie would get rid of the typewriter and clean up Judd’s mess. If Judd sets up a date with Ruth and sexually assaults her at a secluded aviary. Artie holds up his end of the bargain, but Judd doesn’t know what to do with Ruth. Or how. And falls miserably.

The local District Attorney, Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall in fine form!) under pressure from above tells the local cops to bring Judd in for some questioning the next afternoon. And the real came of Cat & Mouse begins. With many questions as to Judd’s whereabouts on April 17th, the day of young Kessler’s disappearance, kidnap and murder. Judd starts out arrogantly and obliquely. Believing he has the upper hand until Horn brings out the reading glasses. A style of which over four thousand were sold in Chicago alone. But only a few with a new type of hinge. And one of those was sold to Judd months ago.

Judd talks into the evening as Artie is brought in to corroborate Judd’s story. Artie is well prepared. A much better liar. And mentions a family dinner and a guest who is a Federal judge an hour hence. Yet, Horn is not impressed. Politely, sometimes slyly asking questions about a rented black sedan and more details about the two women he and Judd supposedly picked up the night in question. Artie counters well and Horn is about to let them go when Judd’s chauffeur shows up. With toiletries and a change of clothes for Judd. Offhandedly mentioning that Judd’s Stutz Bearcat never left the estate’s garage that day, April 17th. Since he has changed the car’s worn brake shoes.

Round Two arrives without preamble as Horn goes after Judd with a vengeance! Shredding Judd’s many innocuous points of interest (Hot dog stand, park, chance meetings) before going after Artie. Unaware that Judd’s father has called famed attorney, Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles doing his best Clarence Darrow) in the interim. Horn and his assistant, Mr. Padua (Gavin McLeod) go over each detail as Artie rebuts. Then decides to roll over on Judd in a classic “He said… He said” conundrum. Which only makes Judd’s loud and sometimes pitiful meltdown all the sweeter when informed of Artie’s cowardly treachery.

Judd and Artie are charged, arraigned and kept separate in County Lock Up as family retained psychologists and psychiatrists are called in. As Wilks prepares to go up against a city who wants to see his clients swinging beneath a gallows…

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

Watching a fresh on again, off again young talent in Mr. Stockwell mix so well with solidly ensconced contemporaries, Dillman, Milner and Varsi. Being confident and comfortable enough in their own skins to portray two spoiled and coddled, seriously sick puppies (Regarding Dillman and Stockwell) who would be right at home commanding a company of Hitler Youth in 1939 Germany. Both are near childishly juvenile in their assured arrogance that they are above the law and are righteous in their beliefs. Until they realize that the law does not give Brownie Points for genius.

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While Martin Milner stoically, reliably delivers the goods as Sid Brooks. With all the makings of a great reporter and newshound. Whose world is upended when someone he admires and envies a bit in Artie and his “odd duck” friend, Judd are revealed for
what they are. Offset by his girlfriend, Ruth’s perhaps tainted innocence. Ms. Varsi’s take on Ruth is odd to behold. In her moments with Judd, Sid. And later on the witness stand. Held far too tightly by her emotional naivete. In a very pivotal role for a
veteran of  “Peyton Place” and  “Ten North Frederick”.

High marks over all for director Richard Fleischer and his nearly standardized method of scenes averaging 11 to 14 seconds. Long enough to introduce a character, record an argument, move the plot along by planting a seed. Then watching it grow and expand to fruition later in the film.

What Makes This Film Great?

With just over an hour’s worth of build up through Judd’s sloppy performances in these “experiment”. Arguments and kind of creepy cat fights with his “superior”, Artie. The first glimmers of the paired serial killers of today (The Green River Killer(s), Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, Aileen Wuormos, etc) start making themselves known. With one Alpha (Artie) controlling the discussion and later situations. And a subservient (Judd) doing his best to please and be part of something bigger. A dynamic writ large while less than subtly hinting at a homosexual relationship. Heightened by Lionel Newman‘s horn heavy soundtrack.

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The film’s remaining thirty plus minutes belong to Orson Welles and his soft spoken, mumbled take on Clarence Darrow. His size and near Waltz gait command every shot as he fights small skirmishes with D.A Horn. Resists or ignores intimidation and a random cross burning by the Klan. Never ceding an inch as the drab, oddly homogenous and uniform looking jury hold Artie and Judd’s fate in the balance. Thanks to Mark-Lee Kirk’s moody lighting and William C. Mellor’s superb B&W cinematography.

The usual loud chest thumping one would expect from a Lee J. Cobb is deftly, emotionally eschewed. For up close and personal words when needed to cajole the jury. Or whisper close, perhaps veiled threats are directed Horn’s way. Mr. Welles’ Wilk is perhaps the most un-Darrow like performance on film. But it works quite well in baring Darrow’s zeal in fighting the death penalty. Kudos for Mr. Welles’ bravery and for his offered and agreed upon, deft direction of the courtroom scenes.

Note: Available to view on You Tube.


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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.


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