To Live and Die in L.A.

by criticalhit009

The title screen from To Live and Die in L.A.

The blood splatter that looks like a palm tree in the film’s title always reminded me of the famous blood stain from Watchmen.

When I first drafted this blog post, I was sitting in the Toronto Pearson airport as I waited for my breakfast before I fly out to Seattle. Clearly that was the time to reflect upon my recent re-watch of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). It was around seven years since I had seen it, and the film is never as great as I remember. Still, it’s a well made movie, certainly, though some of the film’s seediness and nihilism can be repellant.

I am particularly intrigued, however, by the two informant characters, and how they contrast each other. Our antihero Richard Chance, the Secret Service agent who decides to break the law in order to protect it, exploits Ruth Lanier, a woman who specializes in information to scrape by. The counterfeiter, Rick Master (the most 80s name to ever 80s), also have an informant, Bianca Torres, who is, essentially, his partner, in more ways than one. Whereas Chance exploits Ruth with little regard to her well-being, Masters treats his partner with respect. Both of these informants work at dance clubs, Bianca at an avant-garde dance club, Ruth at a strip club.

The ending circumstances reflect these different dynamics as well.  Bianca is self-assured woman. When Dean Stockwell’s character asks why she stayed, what she got out of it. She turns the question on him, and he replies that they were “partners”. She leaves in silence, with her female partner/lover waiting in Master’s sweet car. They drive away scot-free. By contrast, Ruth tries to escape the cycle of her dependency, but the film ends with Chance’s partner, John Vukovich, taking Chance’s place as a corrupt cop mining information from the precarious. The moral is that men are terrible, and women suffer from the classic “victim of circumstances”, but that ending is unsatisfying as it is the cheap form of characterizations film. Instead of giving women agency and the potential to change their circumstances, we are asked to pity the women as they are brutalized by the system. Through the parallelism, we see that the counterfeiter and his crew had a better relationship with Bianca that the cops out for blood have with Ruth, and indeed Bianca is a completely self-assured, smart woman who coolly and confidently walks away. But even her character is somewhat hampered by the final acts of Rick Masters.

Masters, of course, isn’t perfect, and the film trips itself up a bit around his relationships. Before the climax, Rick presents Bianca her friend/partner/lover from the dance club to here as a present. This act indicates that he cares for her, but also frames her queerness through his control. This encases her queer agency within his framework, somewhat tainting the women’s victorious drive away at the end of the film. Rick, however, is not completely presented as a straight man either, as the film alludes to a gay potency throughout the film. We first meet Bianca as Rick kisses her while she is dressed completely androgynously, making the audience question his sexuality quite early in the film.  Rick also makes coded references to his potentially build sexuality, as he asks the then undercover cops “Is this package for me?” while in a gym locker room. while the film is ambiguous to what extent its characters are queer, its possible to see Masters final act as another example of his control (after all, he also videotapes his sexual encounters with Bianca), or an act of acknowledgment from one queer individual to another.

Richard Chance in To Live and Die in L.A.

A great shot of Richard Chance that helps illustrate both his bad boy nature (notice the leather jacket) and the great cinematography of the film.

The main character Chance helps illustrate the obvious themes, and whose symbolism is worth briefly exploring. Chance’s name reflects his risk taking life style, something established early in the film and helps illustrate why he’d be willing to break the law to supposedly save it. it is also meant to contrast to the consummate criminal Rick Masters. While Chance is quite literally a loose cop, whose leash is only the law, Masters is a controlled criminal whose diligence is only ruined by the messy law breaking by Chance and his coerced partner. But at what cost is this a victory? This is the main theme of the film, and it is fleshed out quite well. The film’s famous, wonderful car chase scene is also perfectly emblematic of the film’s themes, as Chance chooses to ignore the “WRONG WAY. DO NOT ENTER” sign partway through the chase, and drive on the wrong side of the road on a busy highway. It’s a simple metaphor, but an effective one, and one example of the blindingly obvious symbolism the film holds, that is so obvious is circles back around to being subtle in some strange way. (Case in point: it took me days to realize the significance of Chance’s name.)

While Chance is the lynchpin of the film’s themes on needing the law to prevent cops from being as corrupt as the criminals, he is also where some of the problems of the film erupt. In the end of the film, as Ruth finds herself stuck trapped in a cycle of exploitation, the ending of the film overemphasizes the spectre of Chance, and how his normally by-the-book partner has been corrupted and took his place within the system. The film’s ending with his partner saying “you work for me now” is powerful enough, but is marred by the film’s insistence on inserting a shot of Chance’s face in the scene *and* a shot of him pulling up in his truck, *and* ending the film at the last instance after the credits to show Chance’s face again. The first instance cuts from what was a beautiful shot of Ruth’s face against the L.A. backdrop, a shot powerful enough to end the film. Instead, the ending scene is compromised by the unnecessary edits, something the film suffers from near the beginning as well. The film’s editing and pacing feels choppy at the beginning, but really picks up once Chance commits to breaking the law in order to “preserve it”. The great soundtrack certainly helps with the pace, as Wang Chung’s propulsive beats add tension and a groove to many of the film’s scenes, often used for establishing shots.

The final shot of Ruth in To Live and Die in L.A.

A gorgeous shot, with the potential of escape highlighted by the bridge in the distance, marred by eager editing trying to beat the audience over the head with the film’s moral.

This is a well made movie that keep me thinking, one that certainly revels in crime film clichés and well as possibly establishing new ones. (A cop killed two days before retirement, and he literally says “I’m getting too old for this shit” in the first scene.) It is perhaps the moral cliché that is the most dated, not for its message, but for the consequences for Ruth’s character, and the film, ethically, suffers as a result. I have a fondness for the soundtrack, something I devoured on high school bus rides for a brief yet intense time. But I cannot quite say the same for the movie, despite its strong qualities (baby-faced Willem Dafoe as Rick Masters is quite a delight). I haven’t seen Friedkin’s other films, many of which are supposedly masterpieces. Knowing from this film that Friedkin, at the very least, is a master of form, makes me look forward to them.

The ending credits over the bridge in To Live and Die in L.A.

I just noticed that we, the audience, seem to escape over the bridge in the credits. This film keeps me thinking.