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'To Live And Die In LA': A Passionate Defence For A Film I Fear May One Day Be Lost In Time.

An outsider's love of Los Angeles, it's depiction in 'To Live And Die In LA' (1985) and it's quality alongside crime thriller contemporaries alike 'Heat' (1995).

By Martin S. WathenPublished 2 years ago 8 min read
'To Live And Die In LA': A Passionate Defence For A Film I Fear May One Day Be Lost In Time.
Photo by Sterling Davis on Unsplash

Is it peculiar to yearn for a home I have never been? A place home to millions, but one I have seldom travelled closer than 5,000 miles to even its furthest perimeters. A Walter Mitty-like reality where I find myself amongst a city that’s culture and art of storytelling are so core to its foundations. So fundamental that, if it were a living entity, cinema would be the blood that pumps its sentimental heart. Los Angeles. And, to me, an outsider with the tutor of cinema guiding my perception – there are two LA’s. A Jekyll and Hyde of cinematic interpretation. Two worlds, universes apart, which simultaneously live side by side within the same sun-soaked town I have always dreamed of calling home. One world drenched in a lustful affair with the forces of nostalgia, whilst the other teasing a dirtier underbelly. A dream standing side by side with a nightmare. The latter, as I will go on to argue with fierce vehemence, captured with magnetically morbid splendour in 1985’s ‘To Live And die In LA’. A film, I wholeheartedly consider a perfect accompanying piece to others of its nature – alike ‘Heat’, ten years later.

And, by God, the recommendations for expressing each world are endless. Of course, for one brighter side, one could always point in the direction of 2017’s ‘La La Land’. Or 2011’s ‘The Artist’ perhaps. To find a moment in which these universes collide, perchance ‘Sunset Boulevard’ of 1950. Yes, Gloria Swanson’s haunting performance conjures a twisted turn on the love of cinema found in Los Angeles’ proverbial “Angelic” face. But to discuss the darkness which lies reclus on the other cheek. The demon entwined beside the titular ‘Angel’ of the City Of Angels. It’s sinful nature more diverse than it’s twin. Spanning genres, to science fiction with ‘Blade Runner’ or horror with ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’. Alternatively, keeping one ear glued tightly to the ground of realism with ‘Nightcrawler’, or ‘Boyz N The Hood’. A subtle hint that the nostalgia-soaked glory of La La Land festers something terrifying beneath. Greed, inequality and sociopathy. What is ‘Training Day’, if not the gradual destruction of optimism when descending into the darkness behind the wrong corner? Two Michael Mann interpretations spring to mind, ‘Collateral’ and ‘Heat’. Of which leading me back to my recommendation – William Friedkin’s ‘To Live And Die In LA’. A drama that’s nature reminds me both superficially and spiritually of Mann’s iconic depictions but has found itself somewhat losing it’s battle to the ever-advancing tide of time. An interpretation, if only remembered, which may have found itself high amongst its peers in both infamy and iconography.

Not to mislead, the film is far from forgotten. Perhaps even considered a cult classic to some, with a 4k restoration thanks to Arrow Video. Though the film far from possesses the lasting grip within the cultural osmosis as the otherwise classics that accompany it. There is no heir of timelessness like its peers. Why not, though? In many ways, ‘To Live And Die In LA’ feels like the quintessential 80’s action movie. Admittedly bearing many tropes and clichés that go in hand with the genre. Such as the untimely demise of an officer only ‘days from retirement’ and pioneering the later mimicked set piece of driving through heavy oncoming traffic to escape authority. But do not misconstrue the sentiment. Friedkin’s thriller is deeper than the otherwise cheese of an 80s action. The tension is greater, and the stakes more personal. In other ways, the piece is this decade’s interpretation of a noir structure. Following a detective’s vengeful path to defeat a force of evil. Debra Feuer’s Bianca could perhaps even be read as a femme fatale.

To draw parallels to Heat, the dichotomy between law and criminal takes centre stage. The lengths our protagonist ‘Richard Chance’ will go to exact revenge is perhaps most compelling. The heartless nature of our villain ‘Rick Masters’ brings a sense of menace to each scene as we soon realise, he is capable and comfortable with all acts of depravity and violence. This Machiavellian nature bringing a stronger gravity to the stakes regarding John Turturro’s associate of Masters. Of whom finds himself in need of lethal disposal. The film itself closely distinguishable as a crime thriller with the perfect fusion of action interwoven without. Chance embarks on a vendetta-fuelled quest to tackle the very mastermind that ruthlessly murdered his partner during their investigation.

In many ways, the film feels alike a love story to the city it lives within. It seduces the viewer with the city’s beauty. Sweeping sunsets or skylines lit in a lavender nightly glow with the silhouette of palm trees or a distant beach. Despite the disturbing violence that litters itself between these views, the comforting embrace of a ostensible paradise pulls one tighter until it smothers you. If ‘Nightcrawler’s’ camerawork perfected the cerulean-like nights of Los Angeles then ‘To Live And Die In LA’ masters it’s tangerine daylight glow. In fact, Robby Muller’s cinematography alone is enough to develop a superficial attraction, if not love, for the City Of Angels.

In some way, the ambiance of the film might remind the viewer of those broad opening shots of ‘Die Hard’. Those which follow McClain as he makes his way to the Nakatomi Plaza. Imagine, if you will, this atmosphere stretched wide for the remainder of the film. All this with a villain as menacing as Hans Gruber with a further layer of Malevolent evil that demands your full attention with each second he spends on the screen. This, Willem Defoe’s “Eric Masters”. At the age of 30, of the film’s release, this performance was far before the unease of Defoe’s ‘Thomas Wake’. Nor the menace of his Norman Osbourne. No, this young Defoe represents evil incarnate. A textbook expression of sociopathy with keen wit and ruthless ambition. A man that would shake a man’s hand one day, then cut his life short the next.

Moreover, Wang Chung’s distinctive soundtrack makes the film a wholly unique experience, separating itself in its originality. The London-based pop-punk new wave band’s contribution to the piece can unquestionably be described as characteristically ‘80s’. Ironically, Friedkin initially requested the film’s title anthem not to share the same title as the film itself. Though, upon lending his ear to the work they turned in, the legendary director immediately changed his tone. This energetic theme only gives the film’s world a more inimitable atmosphere. In fact, with the addition of this non-diegetic element, the film develops a novel relationship with the viewer. One that provides the sensation of travelling back in time. Earning a three-dimensional interpretation of the city during the time of it’s narrative. In this, I draw equivalence to others that achieved such a feat. ‘Taxi Driver’ and its iconic representation of the seedy streets of 1970s Manhattan. ‘Fargo’ for the snow-drenched winters of North Dakota. Or David Lean’s wide dessert panoramas in ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’. Similarly, ‘To Live And Die In LA’ feels otherworldly to my own experiences in life. A far departure from the landscapes I have witnessed. The weather, the nature. A not-so-subtle contrast to my life so far that, despite the violence and blurred morality, I cannot help but crave visiting.

Do not be mistaken, though. This film is far more than a stunning aesthetic provided by an acclaimed cinematography, master director and idiosyncratic musical talents. The narrative takes us on a journey in directions that are entirely unexpected and often disturbing. Our two lead protagonists are distinctive from one another, both in temperament and their methods in coping with severe pressure. Our character’s morality corrodes seamlessly, and this erosion does not go without punishment. They are deeply flawed, and often haphazardly treacherous. This, further separating our protagonists from the mostly composed Rick Masters (Dafoe). He is admired by his peers. His professionalism gives a phenomenon that our heroes are battling a foe that is always several steps ahead of them. He serenely counterfeits money when introduced, in a manner that clearly likens to an artistry. Masters is frequently praised by those of which he interacts, whilst the officers are berated by superiors. In fact, Friedkin insisted heavily that these methods of faking bills to be entirely authentic. This principal, to the point where Dafoe and the crew jested nervously when they heard helicopters fly overhead that the authorities had rumbled them.

To plunge deeply in love with a city you have never called home is a power only cinema could ever wield. Our outsider’s allure to those places in the world we have never strayed, but through the retina of the camera’s eye we feel as though we understand spiritually. The same sorcery that drove thousands in the direction of Tokyo following the release of ‘Lost In Translation’. The combination of story, visually explosive imagery and a unique soundtrack can rapidly seduce the viewer for the place on screen. For Los Angeles, my home far from home, look no further than ‘To Live And Die In LA’ – the perfect accompanying piece to ‘Heat’ or other films of it’s time. Do your best to allow this film the durable and longstanding audience it deserves. Consider it amongst the conversation of quintessential depictions of (particularly 80s) Los Angeles and those gloomier shadows cast beneath its glowing sun. Consider it beside ‘Nightcrawler’, ‘Falling Down’ or ‘Drive’. Admire the soundtrack, fall once again for the warmth on-screen, and relish a unique perspective on an otherwise familiar tale. A story studying the depths that good will tumble into the murky waters of questionable morality to avenge those in which they have lost.


About the Creator

Martin S. Wathen

A writer practicing in both prose and script. With a deep passion for film and screenwriting, I use this platform to publish all unique ideas and topics which I feel compelled to write about! True crime, sport, cinema history or so on.

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