To Live and Die in L.A. Is William Friedkin’s Most Underrated Masterpiece

To Live and Die in L.A. was released more than a decade after William Friedkin's most famous films, but it is every bit an exercise in expertise, shock, and awe.

Willem Dafoe in To Live and Die in LA
Photo: MGM/UA

William Friedkin was an inherently well-informed filmmaker. He started out in television at age 18, directing live news reports and documentaries for WGN-TV in Chicago. He knew how to get to the bottom of any story, best frame the narrative to capture attention, and inform the viewer.

He brought that sense of assured knowledge to movies. There is never any doubt about the veracity of The French Connection (1971). The Exorcist (1973), meanwhile, invites the audience to medical diagnoses and a realistic portrayal of demonic possession. It is the emphasis on the medical that makes the demonic seem plausible. Similarly, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) is an authentic movie about counterfeiting, and one which deserves to be as celebrated as his early ‘70s masterpieces.

A Step by Step Guide to Counterfeiting

The printing of bogus bills may not seem like an exciting basis for a crime thriller, but Friedkin progressively raises the stakes with this mid-’80s effort. Never underestimate what a criminal mastermind will do to protect his turf, nor the lengths federal law-enforcement will go to secure government money. To Live and Die in L.A. is about Secret Service agents on the trail of a counterfeiter, Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), and we learn equally about both trades.

Dafoe’s Rick Masters is an artist. We plainly see his commitment to perfection in the burning of a painting early in the film, and learn it is an ongoing process for his creations’ destruction. He’s also got a head for business, in spite of evidence to the contrary when he burns a small fortune in emotionally tainted but perfectly resaleable product. It is still sound advice.

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The first sequence which shows Masters making the initial plates for the bogus $20 bills is a cinematic education. Friedkin hired an actual counterfeiter as a consultant to stage the scene. The finest points are illuminated, each stencil cut, brush stroke, plate retraction, and steam. We get a tangibly visible feel for the deep reds of the printing primer, and the specific colors and textures of the paints used to perfectly mimic legal tender.

If there weren’t so much expensive machinery involved, it would be tempting to try it at home. As it happened, some of the fake $20 bills designed for the film leaked out of the set, and real authorities were on the alert.

Things They Don’t Teach at the Academy

To make The French Connection more than plausibly authentic, Friedkin, along with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, went on drug raids with the cops being portrayed in the film. “Eddie Egan, who was the character who Hackman played, would give me his gun in a situation like that,” Friedkin told the DGA in 2003. “He would say, ‘Here, watch the back.’ And I would be standing in the back with a .38.”

For immersive authenticity, Friedkin based To Live and Die in L.A. on a novel written by former U.S. Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, who also co-wrote the screenplay, and lectured the director on the realities of the job. As much as the counterfeiter with the deft brush stroke, the federal cops in the film also prove serious police work is equal parts art form and science. Forensics may be carved in stone, but rules can be bent, and To Live and Die in L.A. quotes enough procedural protocol for all the loopholes to be explained. 

When Richard Chance (William L. Petersen), the reckless adrenaline-junkie hot dog Los Angeles Secret Service agent at the center of the film, asks for front money to make a hand-to-hand buy of bad bills, ensuring a conviction, his superior officer tells him: “You violated section 302.5” of the manual, “all agents must notify the agent in charge of all ongoing investigations.”

Chance doesn’t give much notification about anything. He learned that from his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), a veteran special agent two days from retirement, who is still taking risks without backup. “Buddy, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Masters tells him before a new special agent, John Vukovich (John Pankow), has to be assigned to the case.

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Corruption is endemic to the mechanics of the justice system. Chance blackmails his informant, Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), holding her in an invisible prison with threats he’ll have her parole revoked. He doesn’t even give her time off for conjugal visits.

In it for professional solidarity, Vukovich tries to go by the book. Chance throws the book out the window. He doesn’t need it. He’s “got a notebook with all the dealer codes in it,” which means he has the keys to the counterfeit operation. It wasn’t obtained legally, of course, and should have been left at a crime scene. But where’s the fun in that? Chance is about to take his new partner on the ride of his life.

Driving Lessons

Friedkin set the standard for great movie chase sequences with the high-speed pursuit under the Brooklyn elevated tracks in The French Connection. There is an automotive train race in To Live and Die in L.A., but it is merely one evasive maneuver in a nine-minute sequence which flips the art of motorized stunts on its axle. The sequence took six weeks to shoot, most of it done by second-unit cameraman Robert D. Yeoman, and was assembled into a masterpiece of perpetual motion by editor Scott Smith.

The action begins with a pre-chase, driven by Pankow’s Vukovich, which sets a tone of desperate suspense by mere virtue of the angst emanating from the man whose hands are on the wheel. He will soon add an almost incapacitating guilt trip to the ever-accelerating proceedings when Chance presses his foot on the gas in the ultimate getaway. The initial part of the chase is an automotive ballet through a metallic lake of tractor trailers, concrete dividers, and incoming automatic weapons fire. Then Chance veers into oncoming traffic.

The serpentine race coursing through the wrong direction of Los Angeles’ freeway system would appear absolutely impossible if it weren’t for the collateral damage inflicted. Left all over the road in the wake of the insane lane changes, it matches what it would look like if such an incident occurred. We believe this is the damage which would be incurred. More realistically, the density of the rush hour traffic makes the pursuit feel far more perilous, but also means no car is able to go fast enough for mass fatalities. The evening news reports it as just another drivetime inconvenience.

As framed by Friedkin’s expert maneuvering, Chance doesn’t only prove he is as reckless a driver as he is a cop, he shows how far he will go to stick to a plan as arranged. The reason Chance disregards traffic laws so readily has nothing to do with the bungee-jumping thrills he enjoys on his time off. He bends more than rules to get around the $10,000-limit the Secret Service imposes on advance payment for illegal goods. He breaks the law completely.

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Chance commits a crime, a brazen theft, stealing $50,000 to be used for the $30,000 front money at gunpoint. He makes his partner an accomplice, in more than just the robbery of a known criminal. Even that is not enough. With Friedkin’s malice of forethought, Chance is an agent who will go the extra mile and make it look like the scenic route. Just don’t ask him to parallel park.

Everybody Wang Chung Tonight

Even though To Live and Die in L.A is set perfectly within its time, it’s hard not to find parallels with Friedkin’s decade-earlier genre-redefining The French Connection. As the central character, Petersen is more of a then-modern Steve McQueen-type than a hatless version of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle. He exudes cool-in-action, rather than suspects-in-traction.

Pankow’s John Vukovich, however, is a more than worthy successor to Roy Scheider. Now known mainly as Ira from TV’s Mad About You, Pankow was something of a theater savant before he made To Live and Die in L.A. He was the actor who succeeded Tim Curry in Amadeus. One of the most informed decisions Friedkin made with this film was to cast young acting geniuses, and dig into live theater to get exactly the right talent at a reasonable price.

Independent New York theater was very exciting at the time. Dafoe was still appearing regularly with The Wooster Group, the experimental theater he co-founded, during the making of Friedkin’s film. John Turturro, who plays Carl Cody, the mule who is busted during the airport chase which almost rivals the freeway scene in the movie, got his MFA at the Yale School of Drama before diving headfirst into film. Friedkin chose supporting players addicted to the excitement of perfection.

To Live and Die in L.A. is the best kind of relic, immersing itself in the mid-1980s culture of Los Angeles. If the soundtrack by Wang Chung doesn’t raise rhythmic nostalgia, the fashions in the clubs nail it, from neon lighting on stylized living art pieces, to the seditious aura of Masters’ mysterious dancer confidante Bianca Torres (Debra Feuer). Slick and sexy as any of the period’s action pictures demanded, this is no Miami Blues. As both of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver are renowned as definitive portraits of a period of New York City, To Live and Die in L.A. is the quintessential crime movie of the west coast at that time.

Unlike the quality counterfeit cash commanding such a cost within the film, To Live and Die in L.A. is a genuine masterpiece, which should be exhibited along with The French Connection, and The Exorcist

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