At the beginning of the seventies, American filmmaker William Friedkin made two everlasting classics – The French Connection and The Exorcist. With these two highly acclaimed statement pictures, Friedkin not only established himself as one of the most skilled filmmakers in the business, but he also became – as much as he would probably despise the characterization – a very bankable director. These box office splashes, however, were followed by a quartet of financially or qualitatively lesser projects: Sorcerer, The Brink’s Job, Cruising and Deal of the Century. Even though Sorcerer is a monumentally beautiful film, its box office results started a series of films that made the critics and the audience question the trajectory of Friedkin’s career, which is why the filmmaker’s 1985 neo-noir action thriller To Live and Die in L.A. was seen by many as his comeback moment. Both to form and to financial success.
To talk about this film and all the little bits and pieces that make it work so well even today, 35 years since its premiere, means to start with the life story of a man called Gerald Petievich, a Secret Service agent–turned–fiction writer who used his first-hand knowledge and experience and channeled them into his passion for writing. During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he served as chief of the counterespionage section in Nuremberg, after which he joined the United States Secret Service. He spent the next fifteen years working as a special agent, often getting up as early as 4:00 AM to pursue his writing ambitions before heading to the office. In 1984, a year before he would resign and completely dedicate himself to his literary career, he published a mainstream thriller about a Secret Service agent on his reckless pursuit of capturing a notorious criminal. Petievich’s novel was recommended to Friedkin by an acquaintance and, in his own words, he got attracted to it because of the “surrealist nature of the life of a Secret Service agent”. Friedkin soon finished his first draft, even calling Petievich to help him with some additional scenes, but even though the project got the green light, its limited budget of only six million dollars meant Friedkin had to do some magic to shoot the film he envisioned. It’s to no surprise, then, that he turned to his favorite magician – casting director Bob Weiner.
“He wasn’t really a casting director,” Friedkin explained. “He was a film and theater critic for the Village Voice in New York. Bob Weiner knew every actor around.” Having worked with him on The French Connection, where Weiner introduced him to Roy Scheider and basically “got everybody but Hackman”, the director was familiar with Weiner’s talent for finding movie stars before the rest of the world figured out they were movie stars. Considering the budget for To Live and Die in L.A., Weiner’s talent scouting was desperately needed, but he was retired and living in Paris. Friedkin picked up the phone. “Bob, I want you to do the same thing for this movie that you did for The French Connection.” Weiner returned to the States and after about a month told Friedkin to come up to the Toronto Film Festival to see a young actor perform A Streetcar Named Desire. Hesitant to put in the effort because he believed “that role belonged to Brando”, Friedkin was nevertheless persuaded by Weiner’s judgment. “He was very athletic, he was very physical, and he was a terrific actor,” the filmmaker recalls. “It was a totally original performance.” And this was how William Petersen was discovered. Friedkin offered him the lead role right after the production, but Weiner’s task didn’t end there: soon enough, he filled in the blanks in To Live and Die in L.A.’s cast with the likes of Willem Dafoe, John Turturro and basically the rest of the group. “Everybody who is in the picture? He had discovered them and he had brought them to me. I never went to more than one person for the role.” The only exception was the great John Pankow, whom Petersen recommended based on their previous collaboration in Chicago.
A combination of factors turned this neo-noir thriller into one of the best films of the decade. Friedkin’s assured and elegant direction was accompanied by Wang Chung’s energizing electronic score and complemented by the keen eye and talent of Robby Müller, the legend of cinematography who shot movies such as Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Jarmusch’s Dead Man and von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Captivating performances from Petersen, Dafoe and Pankow certainly gave life to the material, but the multilayered screenplay is what allows the magic to happen. At first glance, you have a seemingly straightforward story of a Secret Service agent determined to do whatever it takes to avenge his partner’s death and finally put an infamous counterfeiter behind bars. If we delve a bit deeper into the story, we soon realize there are plenty of rewarding ideas hidden beneath the surface. From the protagonist’s symbolic name “Chance” that further highlights his thrill-seeking, adrenaline-junkie personality that allows him to sprint through life without much compassion or empathy, focused solely on his next high, using and manipulating people around him as he sees fit, through morally dubious actions conducted by practically every other significant character in the film, all the way to the brilliantly stylish villain, an intellectual artist who displays ruthlessness only when he sees the rules of his business being broken… The world of To Live and Die in L.A. isn’t black and white; it’s populated by a wide range of colorful and shady characters each trying to work solely for their own personal interest. The decision to make both Petersen’s and Dafoe’s character complex and morally ambiguous was a touch of genius because with this air of realism it’s a lot easier to become sucked into the story. “All of the films I have made, that I have chosen to make, are all about the thin line between good and evil,” the director later elaborated. “And also the thin line that exists in each and every one of us. That’s what my films are about. That’s what To Live and Die in L.A. is about. There is a thin line between the policeman and the criminal. The best cops are always crossed. The best cops are the ones who are able to think like criminals. But for a quirk of fate, they might have been criminals.”
Friedkin’s no-bullshit, show-don’t-tell approach elevates the picture to a whole other level. For instance, at the beginning of the film we see Dafoe’s character, a counterfeiter who’s also an acclaimed artist, burn one of his paintings. Near the end of the story, trying to cover up his tracks, he burns quite a lot of the fake money he created with passion and delicate attention to detail. Without saying it explicitly, we are shown that he doesn’t see counterfeiting as just some secret activity behind his convincing front of being an artist – he sees his criminal work as an extension of his artistic creation. All its strengths aside, To Live and Die in L.A. is often highlighted as a film that exhibits one of the most thrilling and gorgeously choreographed car chases of all time. With the Pontiac LeMans-chases-train sequence from The French Connection, Friedkin is the only director with more than one horse in this particular race. In case you somehow missed it, Petersen and Pankow’s characters are being chased by what they think is a criminal gang, and in the process of getting away they swirl their 1985 Chevy Impala all over the Los Angeles freeway, culminating in a heart-stopping head-on dash into one-way traffic, avoiding about a hundred frontal collisions. The sequence isn’t only visually stunning and displaying Friedkin’s knack for this specific type of action scenes, it’s made even better with Petersen’s thrill-hungry eyes piercing the windshield and Pankow’s panicky outbursts in the back seat. “I didn’t really have to act,” he later confessed. “I was terrified a lot of the time.” He wasn’t the only one – even Robby Müller declined to participate due to safety concerns, so the second unit cameraman Robert D. Yeoman jumped in. But the chase doesn’t feel like an artificial, clipped-on attempt to match the greatness of The French Connection’s montage, it’s a vital part of the story and actually helps build the protagonists’ personalities.
The reason the viewers become easily immersed in Friedkin’s film and start to care about what they’re seeing is partly because the filmmaker cares so much about authenticity. It is, after all, what attracted him to Petievich’s novel in the first place, and this is what he tried to transfer to the screen. Petersen and Pankow spent a lot of time with L.A. cops and Secret Service agents to learn to mimic their behavior, while Dafoe hung out with the German painter Rainer Fetting to study his personality and art. The counterfeiting sequence looks real because it actually was – Friedkin, to no surprise, employed and consulted real counterfeiters. Even the prison yard sequence with Turturro’s attempted assassination was shot at a real prison with its prisoners shoulder to shoulder with the actors. “I like movies that teach me about something,” Roger Ebert wrote in his original review. “Movies that have researched their subject and contain a lot of information, casually contained in between the big dramatic scenes.”
It’s hard not to notice the level of effort and dedication poured into the picture. To Live and Diein L.A. feels rounded, complex, complete, and it makes perfect sense Friedkin named it as one of the few films he is happy about from his resume. “And it’s not that I achieved them, or realized them perfectly,” he told us, “but I did come very close to my vision of them in the execution.”
Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read William Friedkin’s screenplay for To Live and Die in L.A. [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
William Friedkin directs TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. in a rare behind the scenes featurette
To Live And Die In L.A. (1985) - Bonus Clip 1: Filming The Airport Scene (HD)
William Friedkin discusses the restoration process involved with the Blu-ray release of To Live And Die In LA.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA.