To Live and Die in L.A.

To Live and Die in L.A. ★★★½

Of William Friedkin’s work, The French Connection was the first whole movie seen and it was an acquired taste for me at the time — entrenched in grimness, imperfection, and vices via Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle who still tried to do what’s moral and stop the mob’s narcotics dealings. On the other hand, Friedkin’s famous The Exorcist is one I need to see in full sometime. To Live and Die in L.A. is maybe Friedkin’s best work for me at the moment — like Hackman’s Popeye, William Petersen’s Richard Chance is another imperfect protagonist, yet one with goodwill. However, the road he takes can spur anybody to question their morality and what any individual would do for revenge. Will you keep your sanity and move on? Or will you do anything, no matter how terrible, to ensure a criminal gets what he deserves after murdering your best friend? Should one turn into a criminal to bring another to justice?

Two United States Secret Service agents, Richard Chance (William Petersen) and Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) work in the Los Angeles office as counterfeiting investigators. Chance is a brash man on the job while Hart is more reserved and on the verge of retirement. Before the latter’s upcoming life of bliss, one case pops up for the duo — to search for idiosyncratic counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). But Hart decides to handle the first step of the case himself leading to his murder in the hands of Masters. Without hesitation, Chance promises to nab the criminal no matter what.

There is one particularly devastating event (as fans know) in this neo-noir that almost sidelined the entire goal of the story. However, in a way it isn’t simply poignant but in a dark manner… is quite fascinating. Therefore, what was initially perceived as the point of the tale was in reality a facade for something much deeper. Ultimately, this story told through Friedkin’s no-holds-barred & raw manner — almost akin to Scorsese’s early work — isn’t only a tale of revenge, but a lesson of the revenge cycle and how any traumatic event can alter a noble person’s repertoire.

Chance was out to get his best friend and partner’s murderer — that was the initial route Friedkin took and that’s about all I can say without ruining anything. This grimy narrative of deceit and sin in the City of Angels is an ironic piece and beautifully encapsulates how the fall of humanity can change the purpose or meaning of such a beautiful moniker. Friedkin seems to be indebted to humanity’s fall by showing how even the imperfect has the opportunity to strive and fight justifiably for the sake of his profession and for those around him as seen in The French Connection. Or how the innocent can attract the personification of evil in The Exorcist, but of course, the good wins as always. In this 1985 picture, the filmmaker doesn’t exactly portray good winning the battle against evil or vice versa. Rather, it’s what one’s environment can do to an individual living his life by the book and working his job with integrity.

An individual always has a choice — whether to act morally no matter what the cost or to fall one huge level to immorality for the sake of not letting someone close to you die in vain. One can say that a certain character here had that choice, but did circumstances (one particular circumstance, especially) truly invade his ability to reason and think to avoid going down a sinful path of revenge and extortion? Or could he have chosen otherwise?

Such themes are very existential. Even the good can lose it and fall from grace due to another’s choices made and the inherent evil perpetrated by someone else. Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. is a masterpiece to many, but can be a hidden masterpiece to others. For me, the ultimate end is unhopeful. But then again, it serves as a lesson to never lose one’s integrity or morals. 

Oh, also that car chase is fantastic and possibly better than The French Connection’s. It still employs the raw style with the camera mounted on the car’s hood and window. The lack of stylization and theatrics for pulsating realism is excellent. Still, Friedkin’s style is a bit of an acquired taste for me.

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