Five film connections in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA
Warning: This article contains graphic images
Following the protests and critical reception surrounding his 1980 masterpiece Cruising, and the disappointing arms dealer comedy Deal of the Century (1983), William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985) marked a return to the energetic, stylistically thrilling crime genre filmmaking that first made the director’s name. While its expansive, sunlit, West Coast take on shadowy, claustrophic film noir – soundtracked by the lush, pulsing pop music of Wang Chung – refuses many readymade clichés, the film retains striking, sometimes unexpected connections to the cinematic past.
Friedkin has always professed the influence of a number of stylistically and formally innovative European films of the 1950s and 1960s – notably those of Clouzot, Melville, Resnais and Buñuel – on his own creative blend of documentary, genre tropes and expressionism, best realised in The Exorcist (1973) and Sorcerer (1977). The director has also confirmed the profound influence of Costa-Gavras. The films noir of the 1940s evidently informed Friedkin’s approach to the film that first made his name, The French Connection (1971). But To Live and Die in LA also carries in it less obvious echoes, and ones which function in somewhat different ways to the type of conscious homages to beloved filmmakers one can often find amid the works of Hollywood studio directors of the era. Each of these echoes make the film a richer, more mysterious experience than it might first appear – even presaging one indelible image that was to follow in the work of another groundbreaking filmmaker only two years later.
The Friedkin connection: The director has avowed on numerous occasions that he is not an auteur, in the sense in which that word has been used to discuss the unique, identifiable styles and themes of filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard – all of whom Friedkin has expressed admiration for. Despite these claims, one can find throughout Friedkin’s films from the 1960s to the present, certain distinctive, recurring images; a potent fatalism and a creative play with genre and filmic structure.
Above all, To Live and Die in LA is a mirror image of sorts to the earlier The French Connection. Where the latter gives viewers an unromantic glimpse of New York in the Seventies, To Live and Die in LA treads the fetid terrain of the often romanticised City of Angels. As critic Kent Jones writes in his book Physical Evidence, ‘like Abel Ferrara, Friedkin films only in places that Woody Allen would never dream of visiting’. The plots are not dissimilar: a loose cannon cop vows to bust a master criminal. One crucial link is the mesmerising dynamism of the films’ respective car chases, with Friedkin seemingly intent on taking the already iconic chase of the earlier film to an even more nauseating, technically stunning new level in To Live and Die in LA. In keeping with the tone of noir, both films elicit a sense of pessimism, dread and uncertainty; a sense of paranoia that clouds any easy resolutions.
A premonition: Chance (William Petersen) and Vukovich (John Pankow) return to the station, after the failed stakeout that has resulted in the murder of attorney Max Waxman, to sign their firearms back in. Vukovich realises that Chance has lifted a notebook of Waxman’s from the scene of the crime and warns him about the risks he is running and how he is threatening to jeopardise not only the investigation into counterfeiter Rick Masters but also their careers as federal agents. This is a fulcrum point that will determine how the rest of the drama will unravel, a point at which Vukovich hesitates in following Chance any further on his reckless course.
Only briefly glimpsed as the two agents are pacing through the station, at a moment when the pair are seen to literally make a turn, is a lifesize cardboard cutout of a traffic cop in uniform, boots, helmet and sunglasses. The figure is one of four that originally featured in a promotional poster for the 1973 film Electra Glide in Blue, the only film to be directed by James William Guercio. More than simply a connection to an earlier police film, the cutout serves as a subtle premonition of what is to come.
In the final moments of Guercio’s film the protagonist Wintergreen, played by Robert Blake, is killed suddenly and brutally. The shocking effect of this moment comes as the character – whose initial, unswerving commitment to protocol has by the film’s end shifted towards a more sympathetic outlook – gives those he has pulled over the benefit of the doubt. Chance, on the other hand, ventures ever further from legality and crosses ever more moral boundaries throughout To Live and Die in LA. Yet, in keeping with the pessimism that characterises many of Friedkin’s films, notably The Birthday Party (based on the play by Harold Pinter), The French Connection, Sorcerer, Cruising and Bug (adapted from a play by Tracy Letts), the endgame would seem to be inevitable, whatever the moves taken to reach it. Wintergreen and Chance meet the same fate.
Blurring identities: The end of To Live and Die in LA sees Vukovich paying a visit to the home of Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), the parolee and informant with whom Chance has had a longstanding controlling, sexual relationship. Finally feeling herself free of Chance’s threats after his death, she is confronted by Vukovich, now more closely resembling Chance in appearance and with a colder persona. In this way, the surviving agent – used to taking on false identities in undercover work – seems to have absorbed the personality of his former partner. This blurring of one identity into another is familiar from many of Friedkin’s films – the demon Pazazu possessing both Regan and Father Karras in The Exorcist; the fake IDs of the fugitives in Sorcerer; the wild casting of multiple actors as both perpetrator and victims in Cruising – and in To Live and Die in LA an episode of mistaken identity results in the killing of federal agent Thomas Ling.
Such slippages and transferences of identity, suggesting a worldview based around fundamental instability, are realised in more or less enigmatic ways. The most unusual in To Live and Die in LA comes as Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is seen greeting members of his girlfriend’s dance company backstage following a show, he is approached by an apparently male performer shown only from behind and begins to kiss him. A reverse shot and as the lovers pull away from one another, the other person is now revealed to be Masters’ girlfriend, Bianca (Debra Feuer). Despite his criminal activities, Masters is shown to exist in a world of sexual free play, aesthetic refinement and bold artistic expression – as against Chance’s rampant machismo. The moment is described in the original script for the film, in which the stage performance featuring Bianca is said to feature women dressed as men and vice versa. The decision to use a different actor briefly to achieve the effect is certainly uncommon.
But in fact, the effect is identical to one used in Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance (1970). Here identities and gender are similarly untethered within the psychosexual circle into which the criminal Chas (James Fox) is drawn, when he is forced into hiding and arrives at the home of the reclusive musician Turner (Mick Jagger). Eventually drawn far from the blunt certainties of his thuggish, former life in London, in one scene Chas is seen lying in bed with Turner resting beside him. As the figure of Turner turns over to embrace and kiss Chas, he magically transforms into Lucy (Michèle Breton), one of Turner’s two live-in women friends.
A cinema of symbiosis: There are few humorous moments in To Live and Die in LA but one is undoubted. As Chance and Vukovich take to running after two men they suspect of moving Masters’ counterfeit money, one of the men yells behind him to Vukovich: ‘Why you chasin’ me?’ to which Vukovich calls back: ‘Why you runnin’?’, only for the suspect to reply, ‘Cos you’re chasin’ me.’
The same logical loop of dialogue also features in The Laughing Policeman (1973) loosely based on a novel by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which shares a similar plot to Friedkin’s film. The death of a police officer’s partner leads the officer – played by Walther Matthau – to pursue those responsible, with the help of a new partner (Bruce Dern), tossing out the law enforcement rulebook along the way to make their bust. If this is little more than a direct lift on Friedkin’s part, it is somewhat justified since, as critic Brad Stevens has remarked, director Stuart Rosenberg was clearly influenced by Friedkin’s The French Connection.
A sudden shot of inspiration: A longtime admirer of the films of Stanley Kubrick, Friedkin would end up providing the template for one of the older director’s most indelible images of violence. As recounted in the audiobook version of Matthew Modine’s diary of the shooting of Full Metal Jacket (1987), Kubrick enquired after a ‘really good head wound’ that might be used as a reference point for staging Private Pyle’s suicide in the bootcamp ‘head’:
Modine (narrating): ‘Stanley looks at the video of the head wound experiments. He too is disappointed. He wants something big, something that will put a period on bootcamp and send us off to Vietnam. We go for a walk and he asks me if I’ve ever seen a really good head wound in a film. I say I have.
Modine: Yeah, there’s an incredibly violent head shot in To Live and Die in LA.
I tell him how a guy walks into a room with a shotgun, sticks it in another guy’s face and shoots. The man’s face explodes into a mass of blood and bone.
Kubrick (writing in his notepad): I’ll get a print, and we’ll see how they did it.
Time: Shortly after. Stanley is excited.
Kubrick: I got the print.
Stanley agrees that the head wound in To Live and Die in LA is incredible. He wants me to see it. He takes me to a large truck and we climb into the back. Inside is a huge Steenbeck editing machine. I’ve seen a lot of them. But never in the back of a truck. Amazing. Stanley has the scene cued up and he shows me the film at the normal 24 frames a second.
Kubrick: Is this the scene?
We watch the scene and it is just as I remembered it.
Modine: That’s the one. It’s great isn’t it?
Kubrick: Now, watch it again.
Stanley slows the speed to about five five frames a second. At this speed, everything becomes surreal. It’s the speed at which things move when something violent is happening to you. The actor enters the room and raises a shotgun into another actor’s face. We watch without sound so there isn’t the magic, the sleight of hand, the added illusion that sound can provide. There is no bang when there should have been a gunshot. And there isn’t the flash of gunpowder I was sure I’d seen. There is only a big wad of red and white mush flying from off-camera right. We stop the Steenbeck and look at each other. Stanley is smiling. We talk about how it might have been done and figure it was some special effects guys with a catapult, flinging guts into this poor actor’s face. We watch a couple of more times at speed and in slow motion.
Kubrick: It’s really good. But I know how I can make it better. I’ll find a way to throw the blood and guts faster. And the moment it enters frame until it hits Vince’s face will only be about 2 frames of film. I’ll cut them out.
Modine: A jump cut?
Kubrick: Yeah but you won’t notice. It’s too fast, too violent. And the rifle shot will fool you into not noticing.
I’m happy that he’s happy. I’m happy that I was able to help. Working toward a common goal and all that crap. It’s cool when it works out.’
A filmmaker whose work has been shaped by innovators of the cinematic past, Friedkin ended up providing inspiration for the work of a visionary artist whom he admired. All the while, with To Live and Die in LA, Friedkin reignited his own aesthetic, pushing images and themes that had preoccupied him for many years into a feverish, chaotic new dimension.
These intertextual linkages, peculiar resonances and mirrorings in To Live and Die in LA form a map of receptivity, revision and feedback – an ‘intrahistory’ of cinema as worked out by films and filmmakers themselves.