By Aaron Aradillas, Richard Seitz and Matt Zoller Seitz
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post contains the third chapter of Aaron Aradillas and Richard Seitz’s On the Go, a series of video essays about the golden age of the car chase, 1968-85. Part 1 can be viewed here. Part 2 can be viewed here. This entry is devoted solely to the car chase in 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A.. After some initial scene-setting, the video essay lets the chase play out in its entirety, with sparse voice-over narration at significant points. As accompaniment to the videos, we’re running Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece on To Live and Die in L.A., which was originally published in The B-List, the National Society of Film Critics’ 2008 anthology of writing about disreputable classics. To order the paperback or Kindle version of The B-List, click here.
William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. includes several closeups of men getting shot point-blank in the face. Friedkin has been painting actors’ faces crimson since his breakthrough hit, the notoriously ruthless policier The French Connection, which included a just-for-the-hell of it close-up of a cou- ple of disfigured accident victims who had no apparent connection to the film’s main plot. In most cases, these images are a visual definition of the word “gratuitous.” But in L.A., Friedkin’s horrific close-ups are integral aspects of the picture’s down-and-dirty aesthetic and a rebuke to an especially irritating cliché: the movie character who sustains what would surely be a mortal wound in real life, only to show up a couple of scenes later with a cast on his arm. In Friedkin’s Los Angeles, when characters die, they’re dead, and Friedkin puts the camera right up in their freshly pulped faces so you know it’s adios muchacho.
Friedkin’s viciously blunt direction of the film—which he cowrote with cops-and- robbers novelist Gerald Petievich, from Petievich’s best seller—mirrors the obsessive quest of its protagonist, U.S. Treasury agent Richard Chance (William Petersen), a surly jerk hell-bent on punishing his partner’s killer, the suave counterfeiter and would-be painter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Chance flouts rules and procedures in the name of justice and ego; Friedkin startles the audience by flagrantly disregarding conventions that encrusted so many Hollywood movies in the 1980s. That decade saw the rebel antiheroes of the Johnson-through-Ford eras supplanted by macho narcissists played by the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Douglas, and later, Bruce Willis; alpha males who walked all over everybody, yet still earned a slow clap at the end of the story. In the scenes of Chance drawing his more straitlaced new partner, John Vuckovich (John Pankow), deeper into his payback fantasy, the film puts an ironic spin on the arguments that other ’80s action heroes used to justify their quasi-fascist hijinks. “I’m gonna bag Masters, and I don’t give a shit how I do it,” Chance declares. He sounds like Mickey Rourke’s Stanley White in the Oliver Stone-scripted, Michael Cimino-directed Year of the Dragon, which came out the same year as Friedkin’s movie (White’s signature line: “How can anybody care too much?”). But there’s a crucial difference: not for a moment does Friedkin’s film encourage us to believe that Chance represents anyone’s interests but his own.
There’s a disquieting sense that Chance’s fury originates not just in his resentment of lawbreakers and his grief over his partner’s death but also in an overpowering feeling of emasculation. He prides himself on getting close to death—even courting it—without being affected by it. The film’s prologue finds Chance interrupting an assassination attempt on the president by a Middle Eastern suicide bomber who exclaims, “God is great!” before leaping off a hotel rooftop and blowing himself up. The next time we see Chance, he’s bungee-jumping off a bridge on the day of his partner’s retirement—a sequence whose opening shots are deliberately framed to suggest a suicide attempt. Masters’s menace is personal; his treachery rattled Chance, and the fact that the system won’t let Chance exact revenge with deliberate speed amps up his restlessness and egomania and ultimately leads to his demise.
The movie is attuned to the decade’s Me First culture; it’s borderline nihilistic in a way that’s true to its gutter milieu and the self-interested, often loathsome humanoids that scamper through it. At its heart, L.A. is a cautionary tale about a man who is denied instant gratification and then seeks it in his own way, destroying careers, property, and lives in the process. In a DVD supplement, Friedkin describes L.A. as a story of “counterfeit lives” in which every major character is pretending to be something he’s not. On a superficial level, that’s accurate. (Chance and Vukovich go undercover as criminals, and Masters is a frustrated, mediocre painter who lives an art-world hero’s life, financed with money from his counterfeiting operation.) But the description implies a sense of delusion that doesn’t really jibe with the characters’ single-mindedness. They know what they are, they have primal drives, and they do what they need to do to satisfy them.
Except for a few moments of macho banter, there’s little warmth onscreen, and there’s nothing resembling a traditional movie “love interest.” Chance’s relationship with Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), a parolee and single mom, is bereft of hearts and flowers. Chance and Ruth seem to need each other physically, and they betray a guarded vulnerability when they’re together, but the relationship is based on mutual exploitation, and the cop has the upper hand. He wants tips that he can use to nail Masters; she wants to stay out of prison and needs money to supplant her gig as a ticket taker at a strip joint. “How much do I get for the information I gave you on Waxman?” Ruth asks Chance in an early scene. “No arrest, no money,” he replies. “It’s my fault he’s dead?” she counters. “It took me six months to get next to him. I got expenses, you know.” “Guess what?” Chance snarls, “Uncle Sam don’t give a shit about your expenses. You want bread, fuck a baker.”
Chance’s platonic seduction of Vukovich is far subtler. Chance uses his he-man flamboyance (hectoring righteousness, snotty asides, bow-legged gunfighter’s strut) as an intoxicant. He gets Vukovich high on bad-boy swagger and loosens his standards one concession at a time, like a high-school stud taking all night to unbutton his prom date’s gown. By the film’s midpoint, Chance and Vukovich are cutting legal and procedural corners; by the end—after posing as potential customers of Masters and then being denied the down payment required to make a deal with him and bust him—they rob an unrelated drug courier who turns out to be an FBI agent, accidentally get him killed (repeating a twist from The French Connection), then flee from the money’s heavily armed presumptive owners.
The film’s final stretch is a turbocharged black comedy—a Keystone Cops chase going the wrong way on an LA freeway while Wang Chung’s synthesized score chug-chugs like a cokehead’s dance-floor heartbeat. The chase doesn’t just build on Popeye Doyle’s deranged pursuit of the El train in The French Connection; it improves on it by serving up a spectacular metaphor for the characters’ progress through—and effect upon—their world. Tear-assing across Southern California while drug goons strafe them with rifle fire and oncoming cars and trucks swerve to avoid hitting them head-on, the treasury agents threaten the very society that their improvisations are meant to protect.
Friedkin is a deeply untrustworthy director; if you don’t believe it, seek out his have-it-both-ways defenses of the audience-jazzing ugliness in The French Connection, the blasphemous mayhem in The Exorcist, the sinister homophobia of Cruising, and the pro– and anti–capital punishment pandering woven throughout Rampage. But in L.A., his coldly observant eye—that of a robber casing a bank—suits the subject matter, and the production’s glorified underground aesthetic cranks up its energy and intensifies its themes. At the time, Friedkin was reeling from a string of box-office disappointments. He shot L.A. outside the studio system with a nonunion crew, on a relatively modest $14 million budget, with a cast comprised mainly of unknown or barely known actors (including John Turturro as a busted courier whom Masters believes is going to turn state’s witness). Friedkin’s biggest name was Dean Stockwell, a supporting player who has a few effective scenes as Masters’s sleazy sellout of a lawyer. Except for the complex action sequences, most of the film’s scenes play out from one, two, or at most three camera angles. Friedkin often printed first takes. In a few instances he told the actors they were just rehearsing, secretly rolled film, then called “Cut” and moved on. The result feels like what it is: a work of furious urgency. The director depicts the movie’s amoral crooks and corner-cutting feds as animals fighting for survival and dominance: sharks that must keep moving or die.–Matt Zoller Seitz
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television. Video editor Richard Seitz has worked for 20 years as a sound designer, audio engineer, composer, and dialogue editor for video games, television, short films and theatrical trailers. Game titles include The Hulk 2, Battlestar Galactica, Van Helsing, The Hobbit, Predator and Diablo 2. Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play.