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To Live and Die in L.A.

Though it's often cited as a "Decade Under the Influence," what is commonly referred to as the "'70s style" of filmmaking was not bound to a mere ten years — in fact, the New Hollywood era arguably began in 1967 with Arthur Penn's seminal, violent Bonnie and Clyde. It was a time when a new crop of directors — lifelong film buffs like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich — explored their fascination with anti-heroes, those flawed but ultimately human characters who live in a world where "morality" is cast in gray tones. For some film historians, it seemed that the New Hollywood ended with the arrival of Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, which heralded a cinema that offered clear moral conclusions and nostalgic appeal — a perfect fit for the Reagan years. Yet when did this period — the time of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls — really fade away? With the financial blockbusters Jaws and Star Wars? The studio-busting Heaven's Gate? The widespread appeal of the Spielberg touch, which caused studio bean-counters to chase a younger, broader audience? It all sounds good, but the problem is that there are still plenty of films that arrived in the '80s that offer '70s sensibilities, including sci-fi like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. And one could argue that the last great '70s film was made in 1985, when William Friedkin returned to his French Connection roots with To Live and Die in L.A.. William Petersen stars as Richard Chance, a U.S. Secret Service agent who becomes obsessed with catching master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) after Masters kills his partner. Now working with the straight-laced John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance gets closer to Masters by catching one of his money-mules, Carl Cody (John Turturro), but Cody won't talk — even after Masters hires goons to whack him in prison. However, the closer Chance and Vukovich get on Masters' trail, the more obvious it becomes that Chance is deeply unstable — he often cuts corners and blurs the lines when it comes to following procedure. Masters, on the other hand, is a cool-headed aesthete with beautiful redhead dancer for a girlfriend (Debra Fruer), and he spends his off-hours working on his numerous paintings, which he always ends up burning (as he did in The French Connection, Friedkin draws class distinctions between the cops and criminals to great effect). A contact from Masters' lawyer Bob Grimes (Dean Stockwell) gets the two Secret Service agents a meeting with the mastermind, but to ensnare him they need $30,000 in cash to earn his confidence — Masters is well aware that the agency will not allow more than $10,000 in bait-money for a bust. It's when Chance's girlfriend Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) hears of an illicit diamond deal with a $50,000 payoff that Chance and Vukovich break ranks with their superiors, and the law itself.

*          *          *

It's the hunt for the briefcase packed with $50,000 in cash in To Live and Die in L.A. that leads to what may be the greatest car chase in the history of cinema — or at least, it's only rivaled by the two chases in John Frankenheimer's Ronin (1998) and Gene Hackman's white-knuckle ride in Friedkin's own French Connection. It's a great set-piece, but Friedkin also is able to link the event to both the plot and the characters. Though born of noir, there's something almost perverse about Friedkin's cop movies — the main characters take risks and make mistakes, fueling Friedkin's gleeful fascination with darkest recesses of good men. Here, the two agents become common thieves to get their hands on bait-money their own agency won't provide them — a hazardous choice, albeit the only logical conclusion for the aptly named Chance. William Petersen got two big breaks playing cops early on in his career, with both this film and Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986), which effectively set the stage for his later television success in "CSI." He's a commanding lead, and one who (as Friedkin notes on the commentary) is chasing death itself. Dafoe is likewise excellent as the cultivated Masters, who obviously is the obverse side of the coin, while the rest of the cast is filled out with strong supporting players, including a great early appearance by John Turturro. Working from a novel by ex-Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, To Live and Die in L.A. knows its beat, and one feels that Friedkin has achieved something authentic, while still retaining his own cinematic sensibilities — making it both one of the great cop-films and one of Friedkin's best. Long awaited by fans who feared it would get lost in the digital shuffle, MGM's special edition DVD release of To Live and Die in L.A. presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio — it's an edition that finally does justice to Robby Muller's cinematography. Supplements include an insightful commentary by Friedkin, who is engaging throughout as he discusses the film and his own tastes (in contemporary cinema, he says he loves Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman for their odd turns). It's one of the rare commentaries where one actually feels edified after listening to it, and Friedkin has no problem delving into both motivations and the nuts-and-bolts of his shooting style. The commentary is complemented by the documentary "Counterfeit World" (30 min.), which features Friedkin, stars William Petersen, John Pankow, Willem Dafoe, and Darlanne Fluegel, editor and co-producer Bud Smith, and stunt driver Buddy Joe Hooker (and was edited by "DVD Savant" Glen Erickson). The doc gets into the rough-and-ready way the film was shot, how Friedkin directs, and offers some period "making-of" footage. Also included are two featurettes about an alternative ending and a deleted scene (both of which can be watched with or without introductions), stills, and trailer galleries. Keep-case.
—DSH



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