‘Pushes The French Connection onto more dangerous ground’: To Live and Die in L.A. reviewed in 1986

In honour of director William Friedkin, who sadly passed away this week, we look back at the Monthly Film Bulletin’s original review of his slippery, subversive crime thriller about two Secret Service agents in pursuit of a counterfeiter.

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

In more ways than one, To Live and Die in L.A. is an extended gloss on The French Connection. It has a car chase which, like Popeye Doyle’s lunatic transference of frustrated rage to his automotive battering ram, is both a punishing action set-piece and something peculiarly ‘other’ – disembodied, surreal, an arbitrary display of kinetic energy in which the pleasure resides in seeing how much resistance the physical world can set up. Hence the chase’s progression from the ‘wide-open’ urban spaces of the concreted L.A. river basin (Point Blank country) to a climax, via innumerable bang-ups and shoot-outs, in which the heroes charge the wrong way through clogged rush-hour traffic.

Friedkin always works hard at turning physical shocks into aesthetic shocks, sometimes precious doodles, sometimes garish splurges of action painting. It is a pity that the results so rarely work either as action or aesthetics – they’re almost bound not to, as the coffee-table art of genre cinema – because the operations involved are more extreme and interesting than the genre tinkering of a Michael Mann or a Walter Hill.

Friedkin may have got closest to coherence when his subject got closer to ‘art’ – not a genre movie but his remake of the ‘classic’ Le Salaire de Ia peur as Sorcerer, where for once abstraction and action became one. Not surprisingly, it was subjected to desperate rethinking and cutting, and brought sudden eclipse to its director as a box-office boy wonder.

To Live and Die in L.A. does not exactly fringe art, but its locale is the key to an interesting shift from The French Connection: where New York imposed certain conventions of the ‘gritty’ cop film on the latter, the lotus-land setting here opens up other aesthetic possibilities, of which Friedkin makes a characteristically mixed blessing. There’s one brief shot of the forger running up the stairs in his house, with Californian lushness visible through a glass wall, which is almost instant Hockney.

The action painting this time includes long montages of counterfeit money being produced (not quite enough, say the production notes, to show one how to do it), in which rich colour dyes sensuously ooze through the high-tech process. The resistance Friedkin is working against here is the narrative itself: how many eyeball grabbing fragments can he break the film down into and still have any comprehensible plot or theme left, anything but flashy cyphers for characters?

In this, To Live and Die in L.A. not only ‘glosses’ The French Connection but pushes it on to more dangerous ground, where all the sensuousness of detail creates a sexually charged atmosphere, a lubriciousness, that is never acknowledged at the thematic level. Love-hate relationships abound between Secret Service man Richard Chance, his partners and his counterfeiting adversary, but it is only because Friedkin makes this seem so homoerotic in visual impact that the film becomes so homophobic in implicitly denying it. (Cruising, of course, was already much more explicit on both counts.) The decorative eroticism of Masters’ relationship with his girlfriend, and the abusive intimacy of Chance’s relationship with his, are a predictable consequence and displacement.

This lush aestheticism has released something that was strangely dormant in The French Connection, which stood at the head of the 70s buddy cycle but made so little of the partnership of Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, or of the former’s pursuit of “Frog Number One”, Fernando Rey, except as a kind of outrageous zealousness (like Friedkin’s car chases, a strange displacement of psychic energies into the physical). The director’s explanation of the theme of To Live and Die in L.A. – the affinity in working methods between cop and criminal – attempts to render this conventionally dormant again. But it is probably of the nature of action painting to have more going on at the surface than it does inside.