William Friedkin has had a fascinating—albeit puzzling—career, during which he has directed stunning works: stunning for their brilliance (The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer); stunning for their effrontery (Cruising and Rampage); and periodically stunning for their ineptitude (Deal of the Century). Yet Friedkin’s works are distinctly his, designated by artistic sincerity, ruthless moral curiosity, abstraction, and aesthetics that impart a sense that what Friedkin imagined has been translated to celluloid without the meddling of others.
After nearly two decades of regarding To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) with a spectrum of emotions ranging from disdain-at-first-sight to qualified enthusiasm, it occurs to me that of all his works, this is the film I have watched and pondered most frequently. No longer do I see it as a shimmering piece of costume jewelry, but a forceful, semi-serious diagnosis of a prevalent human malady: the discrepancy between what we desire, or what we are pleased by, and what we claim to value, not only in life but in cinema.
To Live and Die in L.A., with its apocalyptic oranges, resplendent greens, night-vision cobalts and original score by Wang Chung, so overdoses on color and sound that its beauty becomes queasy. Friedkin redirects the modern cop thriller through the chartreuse time machine of noir, adorned with the MTV confections of Miami Vice, but his film emerges as something far more nasty and authentic. It’s also a speedy film, scorched and arid, with few pauses. Even scenes of “downtime” are hyper-edgy episodes of self-humiliation where men coerce women into unwanted sex or drink too much and shout insults they ought to regret, but don’t. Friedkin labors to keep any iota of sincere communication out of the film, and as downtime scenes are usually reserved for frank communication and exposition, Friedkin keeps the flame so high in this film that we are perpetually distracted from the meaninglessness of the spoken word. The one instance where a character attempts profundity—informant Ruth’s speculation about the stars being “The eyes of God”—is embarrassing in spite of, and because of, its indirect attempt to state the film’s theme. Of course, federal agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) dismisses her invocation of an omniscient agency capable of rendering judgement because he can’t bear to contemplate the possibility his behavior is judged by anyone.
To Live and Die in L.A. is also quite amusing, presumably intentionally, but possibly not. The humor is a conscious or unconscious byproduct of Friedkin’s love-hate relationship with the genre he plunders, and also a reverberation of the aptly bipolar performances by William Petersen and John Pankow. Friedkin is sometimes evasive about whether his heroes are making progress or screwing up. He even includes a scene in which our buddy-partners shout at the top of their lungs in an office stairwell about what to do now that they have gotten a F.B.I. agent killed. Subtlety mutates into slapstick. And everything in the film, from a bathroom to a set of train tracks, looks appalling and gorgeous, and often appalling because it is gorgeous. The color is so separated from the image that it seems you could peel it off the screen like a scrap of Halloween cellophane. But Friedkin is not trying to get away with something here, but, rather, has chosen to make contrariness and fakery the underlying thematic traces of a film in which theme, rather than content, dictates form.
When Richard Chance is traumatized by the death of his partner, Jimmy Hart, there is something suspect about the dissociation in his voice when he invokes his grief to others in order to procure some particular result. We are so accustomed to the declaration of loyalty in the buddy thriller, prior to the quest for retribution, that a natural first response is to chuckle at the deployment of such an archaic cliché. Perhaps we are supposed to laugh, but not for the reason we think. It is funny that Chance can say with a straight face, in light of what we later learn about him, “Jimmy Hart was more than my partner, pal. He was my best friend for seven years. He was the most righteous guy I ever knew.” This proclamation is amusing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we are assured early on that Chance values righteousness. The greatest compliment Chance can think to pay his best Amigo is that he rigs a bungee cord safely. But Chance doesn’t have best friends; he has symbolic stand-ins, tenuously connected to him by a chimerical code of loyalty that he only pretends is reciprocal.
As Friedkin points out in his director’s commentary for the Special Edition DVD, every relationship in the film is counterfeit, perhaps even the partnership whose destruction sets events into motion. The characters in this film circle one another like vampire satellites, with such intensity and exploitation that we’re hypnotized, waiting to see how these orbits will fracture. Chance’s new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow), not only assists the spectator in negotiating what becomes a progressively more problematic moral minefield, but by the film’s midpoint appears to represent the most familiar and stable version of the code of devotion that in theory should exonerate Chance for the laws he will break as he attempts to “bag” counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Vukovich agrees to assist Chance in bagging Masters, alleged to have murdered Jimmy Hart; yet Vukovich is aware of the line Chance must not cross and endeavors to prevent him from crossing it. By stressing the existence of this boundary, Vukovich is not just serving a purpose in Friedkin’s story, but calling attention, for the audience’s sake, to the conventions of the thriller Friedkin is eager to pulverize. But Vukovich, too, will ultimately be seduced by strange hero-worship of Chance to pursue the Cubic Zirconium of abusive power.
“Bagging” High Concept
Another interesting thing about To Live and Die in L.A. is that it appeared in Hollywood at a time when the pestilence of “High Concept” had blurred the line between art and artificiality. Unwritten scripts were commissioned for millions of dollars on the basis of a witty one-liner pitched to an executive who didn’t necessarily respect the art form. Posters had become more important than content and quality. Flashdance and Top Gun were pretty enough, but they were counterfeit movies—soundtracks and fashion shows cynically masquerading as films. With this in mind, it’s interesting to examine Friedkin’s film about human infatuation with phony but tantalizing things as a reflection of the era in which it emerged.
To Live and Die in L.A. was packaged to look like a commercial feast, complete with sizzling advertising and a best-selling soundtrack. An executive who read the screenplay in haste might have accepted at face value this story of cop buddies as a project with all the requisite ingredients. From the Director of The French Connection. Hell, it even has a car chase as its centerpiece.
But once the superficialities are shunted aside, it becomes clearer that Friedkin’s film strives to deviate from the norm. Its hero is a corrupt man emblematized by a refusal to change, and his partner willingly swaps his morality for depravity. The villain, who murders only those who have betrayed or endangered his interests directly, is never as unlikable as the hero becomes. The protagonist, whose conduct leads to the death of innocent bystanders, is dispatched in the climax without a tear being shed. The hero’s obligatory “romantic interest” is at the very least a reluctant victim of coercion, and, conceivably, might qualify as a sex slave. And the voracious slickness that taunts Miami Vice (1984-1989) has, by film’s end, become the source of as much discomfort as pleasure. So this is not your ordinary cop thriller.
To Live and Die in L.A.’s prettiness becomes less captivating as the narrative yields to its predatory instincts. The spectator is being sold something, and it’s not immediately clear how many karats are in Friedkin’s ring. One of To Live and Die in L.A.’s persistent motifs is the creation and pursuit of phony things. As spectators grow to distrust the contradiction between what the film introduces itself to be and what it in fact is, they begin as well to question their own moral gullibility and aptitude in judging what is set before them.
Friedkin situates in the center of his film a series of questions: What makes a person, a city, a motive, a movie, or a character within a movie attractive? How does one discriminate between the worthy and the fraudulent, and why do we make exceptions in art that we could not make in real life?
Let me tell you something, Amigo
Friedkin signals us early that To Live and Die in L.A. will mimic but ultimately violate the conventions of the buddy thriller. In fact, he allows Chance to warn us directly: “Let me tell you something, Amigo. I’m gonna bag Masters, and I don’t give a shit how I do it.” Friedkin doesn’t expect us to take this caution seriously because we hear it expressed so frequently in cop films that do not go quite so far into the mire.
Friedkin restrains himself for forty-five minutes before showing us an aspect of Chance’s character we rarely see in other buddy cop thrillers. Chance enters an apartment that does not belong to him, treats it as his own, and helps himself to the body of the woman, Ruth, who lives there. She appears to relinquish herself not by choice but because it is expected, and the dialogue the follows establishes that Ruth (Darlanne Fleugel) is an informant who Chance exploits and coerces for no immediate reason other than, to paraphrase Chance himself, he can do whatever he wants. He controls her by fear—that Chance will revoke her parole. Chance keeps her just dependent enough on the money he allocates that she becomes his property.
The further we go, the more we see how Chance departs from the codification of the acceptable renegade cop, and nearer to the codification of the criminal. Lest we miss Friedkin’s point, he adorns both his hero and villain with the same first name and shows us how their values converge. In some instances they even depend on the same individuals to protect and further their interests.
There is a societal agreement that we disapprove, in real life, of men like Richard Chance, although we glorify them in our art because they are exciting creations. They don’t require sleep. They subsist on cigarettes and can drink a fifth of whiskey before chasing down a lead on foot in the pouring rain. Chance and Masters are reminiscent of Harry Morgan, the anti-hero of Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not,” in that they transform illegal occupation into a mysterious calling and vehicle for self-expression. In order to establish a parallel between renegade individuality and the invention of a self, Friedkin emphasizes the artistry of counterfeiting and labors to make the film itself resemble one of Masters’ canvases. When Chance ceases to be a convention he bifurcates into two versions of the same character: the unreasonable tyrant Ruth sees, but also the myth that gradually enraptures Vukovich’s imagination. Vukovich is a stand-in for the spectator who vacillates between repulsion and envy before ultimately capitulating to the excitement Chance represents. In the film’s coda he ascends to usurp Chance as next in line to enjoy the fruits of lawless abuse of power in pursuit of sensorial pleasure.
The “homoeroticism” that some critics and viewers detect in the film is most likely an amusing byproduct of Friedkin’s effort to establish these dual themes of infatuation and ascendancy. Friedkin exaggerates the machismo elements of the buddy genre—the swagger, the boys club milieu, the objectification of women, the loyalty of one partner to another—just enough that they begin to appear ludicrous, or like ferocious overcompensation for a deficit of sexual self-confidence. Vukovich becomes Scott Fitzgerald to Chance’s Hemingway, alternately enamored of and frightened by Chance’s exaggerated masculinity, which is moderately caricatured and expressed through the illegitimate exercise of authority and coercion. Vukovich, whose enchantment seems subdued and embellished in the same breath, is presented as a naïve boy who by the film’s end wants to emulate his role model—to possess what Chance possessed and to exercise power with the same arrogance. To the extent Vukovich represents the viewer, he accepts rather than rejects the fracturing archetype Friedkin dangles before us.
The car chase
It may seem at first that Friedkin is merely trying to outdo the chase sequence in The French Connection. But the car chase in To Live and Die in L.A. is utterly unique and superior in many respects to its predecessor.
The sequence that opens with the arrival of “Thomas Ling” at Union station and transforms gradually into the chase is the bedrock of the film. Everything that comes before leads towards it, and all that follows is the inevitable consequence. Many of the film’s ambitions are realized in this sequence—its themes are crystallized and conveyed visually, intellectually and emotionally. The geographic and narrative incoherence that may confuse or annoy viewers the first time they see it, over time, become its defining feature.
During this sequence, Friedkin imparts that human beings can be exhilarated by and fixated on things for primal rather than logical reasons, but makes this experience uncomfortable enough that we ask ourselves why this is so in this particular film. It is instructive, for example, that Chance appears to enjoy the chase more than he fears its consequences or cares to understand how it has come into being. By withholding crucial information, Friedkin permits the spectator to share in both Chance’s euphoria and Vukovich’s disorientation, regardless that a man who may have committed no crime has just been humiliated and killed because Chance is compelled to steal $50,000 in cash to implement his vengeance against Masters. This is Chance at his worst and his best. Everything we reluctantly admire and detest collaborate in one sequence where Chance loses control over events, and relishes—only as a charismatic sociopath could—every moment of indecipherability. In the continuation of the chase that follows the death of “Ling”, Chance is suspended in the time and space of pure, uninhibited action—the state he has sought all along.
Technically and artistically, every choice Friedkin makes during this sequence is exceptional. The chase is slow to develop. It’s not even clear that this is a car chase until after it’s begun. The compositions are superb; the editing sparkles and is frequently abstract. Friedkin even temporarily transfers the point of view to the pursuers without any formal introduction or establishing shots. By reusing set-ups, he induces a transitory sense that we are seeing the same action twice, or that Chance is driving in circles rather then being pursued. The rhythm of cuts and sounds as Friedkin percolates between perspectives and omniscient compositions escalates the sensual intensity, but also creates a void into which he inserts Vukovich’s peculiar transformation from manic backseat prisoner to disciple of Chance.
Narratively, this sequence is well designed and purposeful. It does not exist, as many chases do, for its own sake, contrived and introduced into the narrative for little purpose other than exhilaration of the audience. A number of ideas are cemented during the sequence:
1. Chance transgresses some vaguely established line of acceptable conduct, relative to other films that deal with the renegade cop theme.
2. Friedkin affirms that the thrill is more important to Chance than his professed objective.
3. Vukovich fuses with his hero, Chance. This is rendered with imagery and acting that suggests Vukovich fears and wants to be Chance.
4. The audience fuses with Vukovich, who is divided between his admiration for Chance and his dawning amazement at himself for doing so.
5. Friedkin makes us see Chance in a negative light moments before situating him in a euphoric context in which those doubts create an interesting distance from a character we are no longer certain we respect during the emotional high point of the film. We are, like Vukovich, the passenger in a car with a driver we no longer trust and whose volatility, once charismatic and traditional, is now spilled beyond what we are habituated to expect. Thus, the emotional apex of the film occurs when we are least certain whether our hero is indeed our hero. At this moment, there are neither heroes nor villains in the film.
Additionally, because it’s not clear who is in pursuit, or why there are so many of them, the chase has a surreal quality that easily accommodates Friedkin’s introduction of expressionistic elements. These elements solidify ideas without the anchor of literal specificity. In the midst of this frenzy, Friedkin successfully isolates Chance and Vukovich so that an abstractly-rendered psychological transference that occurs between them becomes a central focus of its discourse. What appears to occur within the car itself is that the ultimate cause for Vukovich’s inexplicable attraction to Chance becomes accessible to the viewer. Furthermore, this transference occurs at approximately the same moment the spectator may find himself admitting that he too is exhilarated by the conduct in spite of the fact it has trespassed the established boundaries of the genre itself.
The chase even has, for Chance, a sexual component. Sex is very strangely rendered in To Live and Die in L.A.; it is performance art that establishes hierarchies of control and ownership, and is never treated as believable, pleasurable or freely given. That arrogant, desirous gaze Chance foists upon Ruth forty-five minutes into the story—and which Friedkin thinks sufficiently important to reprise in the coda to suggest that the splintering of Vukovich’s conscience is complete—is the gaze of a man who is at ease abusing his authority and enjoys taking advantage of whatever is set before him: I can do whatever I want. But Chance’s euphoria during the chase is not a pose—it’s a true thing, and an orgasmic thing. Friedkin’s crosscutting between Chance, Chance’s bungee jump and Vukovich perfects an analogy between risk and the ecstatic discovery of a primal self in a sequence where Chance derives demonstrable gratification from his addictive and relentless hoarding of experience. Chance doesn’t seek vengeance but adrenaline, and is not afraid of death. This is the scene most directly related to Friedkin’s essential theme of fakery as it relates directly to the audience: Friedkin knows that we, like Vukovich, are so vulnerable to ecstasy in spite of moral qualms. Interestingly, it appears to be this aspect of Chance—the ecstasy, stubbornness and power of fearlessness—that makes Vukovich want to become him. And this is the aspect of him many viewers will appreciate as well, even though it makes them uncomfortable that they do. The moment at which Friedkin indicts the capriciousness of admiration occurs during a car chase, which is often the most artificial moment in a film.
This is one of the few cinematic car chases that positions the characters and audience for an even greater payoff. That is to say, the car chase itself has a punch line, delivered two scenes later (during the intermediary scene, Chance celebrates the commission of his crime with Ruth) when Chance and Vukovich learn they have directly facilitated the murder of a federal agent. This information is dropped, quietly but firmly, like a Samurai sword. Chance has brought about the identical consequences for which he holds Masters in contempt, even though his own superficial exaltation of behavioral codes is itself predicated on a skewed moral hierarchy of questionable sincerity. Chance is nervous about what he has done, but not remorseful; he doesn’t appear to give the moral ramifications of the death a second thought.
Chance’s indifference fulfills the promise of the chase sequence. This is the moment at which viewers are most likely to ask themselves the questions that Friedkin has wanted us to ask all along: Exactly who are the good guys and who are the criminals, and if there are both types in this movie, which is which? If Chance is no better, and possibly worse, than other characters in this film, why do I like him more?
Some might argue that it’s not necessary that we like anyone in any film. Many great works—including some by Friedkin—examine characters with few ennobling traits and disconcerting deficiencies. The French Connection is one pertinent example; however, Friedkin is honest about who “Popeye” Doyle is from the moment he is formally introduced to the audience. However, consider for a moment at what Friedkin has his hero do in the first act of To Live and Die in L.A.:
Save the President of the United States from a suicide bomber (with whom he pretends to empathize)
Comfort his traumatized partner
Overcome his fear to make a bungee jump
Celebrate with and receive praise from colleagues
Gives a present to his partner
Express deep feelings of loyalty for his partner, who is soon to retire
Suffer the death of his partner and “best friend”
Vow to avenge his partner’s death
Only in hindsight is it obvious Friedkin assembles this litany of orthodoxies with the hint of a smile. Shortly after we are sold on what a great guy Chance is, his attributes go into hibernation. “Popeye” Doyle and Jackie Scanlon (Sorcerer) are introduced without apologies by Friedkin; in fact, the first thing we are shown about Scanlon is that he will, with no reluctance whatsoever, participate in the murder of a priest for profit. Furthermore, in To Live and Die in L.A., stylized technique itself is used by Friedkin to excite us about this character. The flagrant cheerleading is evident in the pace, flattering compositions, self-congratulatory dialogue, score, and the selection of what Friedkin elects to show us about his characters before he gets down to the business of divulging what he has withheld. He labors intentionally to create a false impression. Otherwise, he would not exert such effort to ape a formula, borrowed from an array of other films, whose sole purpose is to induce the viewer to form a positive opinion about Richard Chance and a negative opinion about the criminal he is trying to foil. Friedkin would not do this unless it was important to him. And it’s important to him because, once we have agreed to stipulate that Chance is our hero, he wants, like a Judo master, to use the momentum of our own self-deception to flip us on our backs.
Friedkin directs us to accept Chance as our hero, and then discards the conventions of the genre, leaving us to flounder, like Vukovich, with the contradiction of our admiration and a conscious awareness that the film is forcing this point on purpose. Friedkin sets the bar for our tolerance at the fifty-yard line and moves it incrementally back, yard by yard: “Will you still choose to side with Chance if he does this? What about this?” At what point will our preconceptions about the genre itself conflict with the information provided us about this particular character? If we are compelled to remain stubbornly on the side of Chance to accomplish his objective, we must eventually ask ourselves Why?
There is no logical reason to admire or sympathize with Chance, other than that Friedkin designs his film so that we do so out of habit before we are provided with sufficient reason to object. Chance is not even sympathetic when he “grieves”; his grief comes off as counterfeit and manipulative, because he wants something in return for its demonstration. What attributes does Chance have? When we gather them we are essentially gathering a catalogue of adjectives gleaned from other cop scripts: He’s tough, driven, determined, he does what he says he will do and has the courage of his convictions. He’s cool under fire, fearless. But he’s dishonest, and he’s seldom nice, or fair. He’s capricious in his exercise of authority. And he’s more disrespectful and dangerous than his worst enemy, Rick Masters, who has become our enemy only because we’re rooting for Chance.
Admittedly, it sounds poorly considered to say that the character we forge the greatest kinship with in our film has many negative and few positive qualities: that he treats women like slaves, derides his partner for his virtue (after claiming to value righteousness), gets an F.B.I. agent killed and celebrates afterwards, may even be more repulsive than the villain—but that we’ll root for him nonetheless. However, this allegiance to Chance is apparently not anomalous. We learn from Friedkin’s commentary that Metro Goldwyn Mayer executives pressured him to shoot a preposterous alternate coda in which Chance survives because test audiences liked this character too much to see him perish.
The so-called Happy Ending—included in the Special Edition—is indeed of interest to scholars of this film for the intriguing reason that it is not happy. Even in his efforts to soothe nervous studio executives, Friedkin could not conceal the essential truth of his principal character. The Richard Chance he gives us in the alternate ending squats in an Anchorage outpost, clutching himself and looking either ill or disturbed—this is not Michael Douglas in Black Rain but Jack Nicholson in The Shining. If Friedkin couldn’t kill Chance, he wanted at least to impart this idea that Chance is too damaged to be envied, regardless of whether he is a fictional creation or not. The result is a Happy Ending that would seem to be more unsettling to most viewers than Chance’s obliteration.
The persistence of archetype
Although Michael Mann has explored this line between criminality and its counterforce, even his work—specifically Manhunter and Heat—stops well short of insinuating there is no separation whatsoever. Mann only argues that the criminal mind is accessible to the moral man who pursue criminals, and argues that if we are honest with ourselves about the nature of criminality we cease to find it unfathomable, and, in the case of Heat, may even find the individuals who perpetrate it more consistent and enlightened than those who seek to prevent it. Friedkin goes much further by contemplating the possibility that a sociopath may be drawn to law enforcement for the very reason that he is a criminal unconsciously disguising himself as its opposite. And I believe he integrates something else as well, having vaguely to do with society’s gullibility in being shocked that this might be the case. This is a riskier thesis than Mann’s, and Friedkin presses it explicitly without avoidance of its inevitable consequences. Our adulation of immoral cops in our art may or may not say something about us, but Friedkin probes our tendency to accept, without discrimination, such archetypes, and watches to see whether we squirm or proceed, unconsciously, to sanitize Chance in order to reinvent To Live an Die in L.A. as a film that meets the criteria for a genre it subverts. We are so unaccustomed to a lack of relativistic delineation between good and evil in our cop films that, if the test screenings are an accurate indication, we are as likely to suspend our critical faculties and stand by Chance as we are to reckon directly with what Friedkin argues.
Those of us who grudgingly like Richard Chance must eventually contend with our contradictions, and must admit as well that we are contrary creatures whose real-life ideals and principles conflict with our reverence for mischief and the brazen expression of power in art by characters we would find despicable were we to meet them in person.
When, in the pre-credit sequence, Richard Chance helps Jimmy take out the suicide bomber, he is saving the life of the President of the United States; this is not just any president but Ronald Reagan, who was adored for superficial characteristics that, for most Americans, displaced a recollection of the questionable things he did in the name of eradicating Communism from Central America (a rationale that some historians believe was itself a pretext). Just as Reagan’s charm—his archetypalness—is more often recalled than the suffering he inflicted, Richard Chance is more likely to be accepted by audiences for what he represents before, or in spite of the fact, Friedkin acquaints us with what he is. We will accept craziness in a cop hero—even tolerate illegality, or brutality—so long as it is directed at a morally more opprobrious target, and exercised with consistency, for some purpose we are convinced is worthy. Although Richard Chance has attractive, superficial traits that make him appealing, Friedkin incrementally reveals that he deviates from more conventions than he satisfies. And Friedkin seems fascinated with whether we can let go of him or not. The death of Chance will only surprise or punish a spectator who is unwilling, by the third act, to let go of a fraudulent grasp of this film as the story of good and bad people.
Perhaps the reason Chance compels admiration is because he embodies the fantasy of freedom expressed through uninhibited action, but within the parameters of a revered occupation. This is an attractive reverie because there is no separation between the primal “true” self and the oppressed, artificial self. This daydream is not so different from the one that leads Jack to invent Tyler Durden in Fincher’s Fight Club. Jack rejects Durden because he cannot accept the psychopathology that is the natural extension of the fantasy; Vukovich, however, accepts the derangement in order to retain the fantasy.
Unfortunately for the spectator’s conscience, while Chance is busy evoking the euphoria of unencumbered activity in high style, Friedkin evokes the consequences of these actions with a candor that is unusual within this genre, where it is more common for a director to romanticize, omit or disguise wrongdoing as relativistically righteous (i.e, the Lethal Weapon films). To further complicate matters, Friedkin abstains from demonizing Masters, who tries harder to exemplify his chosen code than Chance tries to exemplify his.
The pathology and consequence of wrong conduct is hardly alien terrain for Friedkin. But it’s more common for him, in his better-admired works, to tell such stories with a straight, rather than a painted, face. Also, his style must be considered: In The French Connection, Sorcerer and Cruising one senses no strenuous effort by Friedkin to compel an audience to like his characters. In those prior works, Friedkin’s method is to linger in dismay on decay rather than embroider it with cinematic body glitter and a fiery score. It is true that The French Connection bears resemblance to the film under discussion here. It raises similar questions concerning the renegade and whether the gratification of obsession is worth the mediocre results achieved. In both films the protagonist directly or indirectly murders an F.B.I agent and seems unrepentant. In neither film is the protagonist transformed by experience. However, in French Connection Friedkin is focused on telling the story. To Live and Die in L.A. introduces a second dimension that is superbly conscious of the way a story is told, the discourse between the film and the viewer, and, particularly, how devices are intentionally used to obscure filmic reality so that dramatic dynamics appear to be morally lucid when they are morally ambiguous. I believe Friedkin is intrigued that we are so quick to take sides in a movie, and so easily manipulated to accept complexity as simplicity. This is likely why he adheres to the conventions of the buddy thriller—at times pressing them beyond credulity—before escalating what becomes a point-by-point repudiation of the devices used in such films to make spectators comfortable with dynamics that should not evoke comfort. This is the technique used by Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket to alert us to the fraudulence of the war film; the use of this technique results in moments in Friedkin’s film that feel like satire. Ultimately, by projecting his story through the prism of self-consciousness he is able to make our willingness to accept a sociopath as a heroic figure in western, mob and cop films a component in the discourse.
What about the possibility we are entirely aware that we side with Chance for superficial reasons? We are not subject to any misconceptions that he is an honorable man, but we’ll forget about that for now because we like what we like more than we disdain what we disdain—this is a movie. The death of Chance is the price we pay, because the qualities that make his death inevitable are the ones we perversely admire. No other outcome is possible for a thrill-seeker who has burnt through his capacity to be thrilled. And, if after all of this, we like him still, then we are like Vukovich—not corrupted by Chance, but permitting ourselves to be seduced.
This last point is relevant to the film’s metaphors that describe the human intoxication with transitory sensory pleasures. Chance’s addiction to violating regulations and mores is another form of being entranced by shallowness because it leaps indiscriminately from one experience to the next. The nature of desire is to wander from stimulus to stimulus, growing bored and moving on. Chance embodies that same restlessness, although it is disguised as a strategy. His life is counterfeit because it structured around the search for sensation rather than meaning. Chance seeks revenge and breaks rules for this reason, but we must doubt he is sincere because Friedkin establishes through exposition that Chance has always broken rules and endangered lives, long before he forms an intent to avenge Jimmy’s death. His criminality is expressed because he craves experience more than he feels obligated to lawfulness. He loses his fear of death because his desire for sensation is so great that, having exhausted experience, death becomes one of the sensations he seeks.
For me, the brilliance of To Live and Die in L.A. is that, like Eastwood’s Unforgiven, it confronts and rejoices in the incongruities that arise when our captivation with mythic archetypes encounters our recognition that what we admire is unworthy. Friedkin tests the predictability of our attachment to convention by gradually expanding the magnitude of Chance’s debasement, while permitting him to retain the qualities we are habituated to extol, predicated on Chance’s insistence that abuse of authority is excusable because the ends justify the means. If we accept that he is being truthful, then we have accepted a false thing as a true thing so that we can, initially at least, enjoy rather than squirm through Friedkin’s movie.
Friedkin entices us to reflect on our contrariness by constructing an analogy between superficiality in human beings and the inherent desirability of objects that have no real value. He commences by stressing the metaphor of the artistic counterfeiter who applies meticulousness to the creation of something intrinsically worthless. Counterfeit money accumulates imputed “value” because it bears resemblance to something else, just as Chance’s story appears legitimate because it resembles the story of a good cop avenging the death of a beloved friend—but it is not. It is an imitation. Jimmy’s death merely provides Chance with a pretext—a plot device—to legitimize his abuse of power to the fullest extent. It’s true that Chance never pretends to be any better than he is, but he pretends to do what he does for a reason he claims to believe is honorable. By the close of the second act it becomes less credible that Chance is driven by moral imperative and more likely that he is engaging in a sequence of crimes of opportunity because they satisfy an inner need. The dramatic cliche known as “He killed my partner” is his license to do so. Friedkin extends this rationale to us to see if we are content to accept it as justification enough to approve what follows. Chance’s obsession with Masters begins to seem more like an example of one man hating a second because deep down he knows that his adversary is the shadow of himself, and the risk-taking is transformed from self-actualization into a disguised suicide wish. Chance and Masters are responsible for each other’s extinction. Vukovich, who surrenders to Chance’s version of reality, completes the act of killing Masters (because He killed my partner) and ascends the throne of corruption to perpetuate the cycle of sociopathy masquerading as righteousness.
It’s revealing that the part of Chance’s life that Friedkin reprises in order to introduce this theme of Vukovich’s ascendancy/capitulation is one of the most shameful aspects of Chance’s existence—his oppression of Ruth to indentured servitude. Vukovich looks vaguely absurd as the substitute for Rick Chance, and that absurdity is an indictment of a mind that prefers the mythic to the humane (“You’re working for me now,” he tells Ruth). By this point, most spectators would not choose to follow in Vukovich’s footsteps because we like what we like about Chance less than we dread the egomania and meaninglessness of his compulsions. Now, safely distanced from Chance, it becomes easier for the spectator to see how—but also why—Vukovich yields to temptation, because Friedkin has attempted to beguile us in precisely the same way.
Those of us who are absorbed time and again by Chance’s odyssey may wonder if we are unprincipled because we are contradictory, or simply human. Friedkin’s lesson may be that we need to question why we are attracted to and influenced by that which exhilarates the senses in spite of the fact we may be in complete moral disagreement. Is our art counterfeit if it goads us in the direction of making moral exceptions when characters are superficially appealing? Friedkin’s wonderful risk is to pose such questions in a film that itself, because of how fully it sates our desire for tactile pleasure, runs a risk of being mistaken for the disease rather than the diagnosis. Yet I side with those who believe this is a great and undervalued work that is effective and specific in its indictment, and is too blunt in its cumulative intentions to be mistaken for fool’s gold.
I suppose there’s a part of me, however, that is willing to accept inconsistency, because I continue to find Chance fascinating and his exploits entrancing. Even though I should know better. The words Friedkin chooses to leave us with in the song that accompanies the coda and end credits would suggest he does not doubt we will join him on this ride, replete with our contrariness and moral compromise. Indeed, he welcomes us, and relishes our reluctance:
I’m waiting for you, but you’re very late
I know you’ll come anyway, and I can hardly wait
Evidently, there’s a difficulty
I know you’ll come anyway, and I can hardly wait
Michael Crowley is a graduate of the Cinema/Television School at the University of Southern California. He held a miscellany of film-related internships and jobs (can you say gopher?) before working as a writer and screenwriter for about ten years. His non-fiction has appeared online and in magazines, including American Cinematographer. In 2000 he collaborated with Robert H. Smith on the non-fiction book Dead Bank Walking: One Gutsy Bank and the Merger that Changed Banking Forever. He is currently writing a novel and serving as executive producer for an independent feature—a ghost story—entitled Spectres. Mike lives in Payson, Arizona, where he is co-owner of a family-run investment management firm.