William Friedkin, who died yesterday, will be most widely remembered as the director of nineteen-seventies genre hits like The French Connection and The Exorcist. But it was in the subsequent decade that he made his most impressive picture, at least according to the Paper Starship video essay above. As its narrator Marcus Muscato puts it, Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. came out in 1985 as “a perfect blending of the crime and renegade cop genres, drenched brilliantly in eighties aesthetic and nihilistic existential glory.” Over nearly half an hour, he breaks down every major element of this “subversive masterpiece,” from its simultaneously slick and dingy look and feel to its technical and narrative brazenness to its soundtrack by none other than Wang Chung.
Like Friedkin’s earlier crime films, To Live and Die in L.A. traces “the thin line between cops and criminals, stating how some of the best cops have some criminal in them, or have been criminals themselves.” It does most of this through the character of Secret Service agent Richard Chance, played by William Petersen as a kind of “nihilistic Fonzie.” In pursuit of Willem Dafoe’s sinister artist-counterfeiter Rick Masters, Chance shows no caution, and his daring-to-the-point-of-reckless dedication. Friedkin matched it with his own “spontaneous, anti-authoritarian guerrilla filmmaking,” covertly shooting and using performances his actors (whom he wasn’t above encouraging to do some rule-breaking of their own) had been led to believe were rehearsals.
Friedkin and his collaborators meticulously planned and painstakingly executed other sequences, such as the central car chase. “The chase isn’t just on a freeway. It goes the wrong way down the freeway,” wrote Roger Ebert in his contemporary review. “I don’t know how Friedkin choreographed this scene, and I don’t want to know.” However astonishing (and anxiety-inducing) it remains today, it wouldn’t be as effective without the “hypnotizing yet energetic atmosphere” created throughout the film by the music of Wang Chung, a band both indelibly associated with the eighties and also possessed of a penchant for unconventional, even sinister sonic textures. That’s true even of their earlier singles: witness how well “Wait,” released in 1983, suits the vertiginous plunge of the film’s startling but chillingly inevitable ending.
Yet even this conclusion is just one memorable part among many. “Along with one of the greatest chase scenes, the film contains one of the most authentic and aesthetically pleasing depictions of the money counterfeiting process,” Muscato says. Those with an aversion to spoilers would do best to watch the movie itself before the video essay, but like the work of any respectable auteur, it draws its power from much more than plot twists. Its main theme, as Friedkin himself put it, was the “counterfeit world: counterfeit emotions, counterfeit money, the counterfeit superstructure of the Secret Service. Everyone in the film has a kind of counterfeit motive.” Given that the world has become no more real over the past four decades, perhaps it’s no wonder that To Live and Die in L.A. holds up so well today.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.