Tuesday, August 16, 2016

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

The last masterpiece William Friedkin made (though Killer Joe's pretty great), To Live and Die in LA is like The French Connection crossed with a Michael Mann movie only without that director's sense of painful longing and romanticism. However, you do get a fair amount of Mannisms here in that the film is set in LA, explores the fine line between cops and criminals, and uses action as a part of dramatic storytelling rather than for its own sake. Consider the film's berserk car chase two thirds through, which is predicated on the fact that the film's "heroes" have just committed a crime and must do anything to escape, as they, after all, are members of the Secret Service.

I bring up Mann though partly because this film almost feels like a precursor to his crime film, Manhunter, released a year after this. While the star of To Live and Die in LA, William Petersen, had actually appeared as a bartender in Mann's debut feature, Thief, this was his first major film role after a successful venture in the Chicago theatre scene. In Manhunter, he famously portrayed scarred detective Will Graham, who comes out of retirement to catch an ostentatious killer. In To Live and Die in LA, Petersen plays a similarly haunted and obsessed man of the law who is determined to take down a likewise showy deviant who has killed his long-time partner.

The antagonist, Rick Powers (Willem Dafoe, who, like Petersen, was prior more known for his work in the theatre, his casting in part due to Friedkin's determination to have a cast of unknowns), is a world-class counterfeiter who also happens to be a legit painter. One of the great villains in movie history, you get the sense that painting isn't enough for Powers, who's the kind of man who's so smart he thinks he can get away just about anything and hide in plain sight while doing it. When we first meet Powers, he's burning a piece of artwork, and afterwards we see him in his print house creating a fresh batch of 20 dollar bills. The sequence is meticulous in its details of the process, suggesting that for Powers this is a higher form of art than putting paint on a canvas (Friedkin found a a real-life counterfeiter to assist here, which, going back to Mann, recalls the opening of Thief where we witness the painstakingly realistic process of James Cann breaking into a safe). Dafoe plays Powers as a full-on kinky, off-kilter dude who nevertheless exhibits an alarming degree of calmness on the surface. He comes across less as a criminal than a man who simply has extreme hobbies (we learn he's also into making sex tapes) and an alarming degree of confidence than he can get away with anything. At one point, Petersen's Richard Chance and his new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow) try to infiltrate his counterfeiting business disguised as Palm Springs bankers. They meet at a gym and Powers gloats that he's been coming to this place regularly for years. "I'm an easy guy to find. People know they can trust me."

Watching the film, you get a strong sense that Chance doesn't really give a rat's ass about being an honorable agent for the Secret Service, that he's more interested in the environment the job offers him, the thrill of catching a perpetrator and, in certain cases, the need to (as mentioned, he's into this particular case because he wants to avenge the death of his old partner).

One of my favorite "making of" stories in any film is during a scene when Chance and Vukovich are trying to track down one of Powers' movers, a shady dealer played by John Turturro (another great actor in his first big role), at the airport. It's a foot-chase scene between Petersen and Turturro, and at one point Petersen finds himself on a crowded moving walkway and decides to jump on the rails to get across it more quickly. During the filming, this was a stunt that airport officials told Friedkin was prohibited. At one point, during a rehearsal shot, both Petersen and the director realized this would be an amazing aspect to the sequence, and so Friedkin hinted that if Petersen was so inclined, that he could "experiment" since this was only a rehearsal take. Of course Petersen, a former college athlete, leapt on the rails with the camera following on track, and of course Friedkin didn't do another take. It really livens up the sequence as a whole, and I laughed when I heard the story behind it, and also realized that it's sort of a perfect metaphor for the kind of character Chance really is.

To Live and Die in La wasn't revered upon its release, though it faired far better initially than Friedkin's best film, Sorcerer, did back in 1977. Today it lives in a better place among the minds of critics and moviegoers, though I still feel it's not talked about enough. It's an immensely complex film in terms of both structure and psychology. It's a counterfeiter action movie that ends up being about how the idea of counterfeiting extends far beyond making fake copies of twenty dollar bills. Consider every character in the film: Is there a case where counterfeit acts do not occur, either professionally, personally, or both?

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