To Live and Die in L.A. (1985): Cult classic thriller is only the greatest film of the 1980s

Yes, you read the title correctly. Scarface, Die Hard, Blade Runner and The Breakfast Club are only four entries from an easily exhaustive list of iconic and seminal brilliance released in the 1980s, those and many more retaining a special place in my heart and showcasing bold narrative devices and deeply satisfying aesthetics that are seldom seen today (except for the whole retro-wave thing, obviously). The 1970s often takes the cake among cinephiles as one of, if not the, most ground-breaking decades in the world of film, and deservedly so, but the Eighties also delivered its fair share of pictures with unique staying power and a zeitgeist flavour that hasn’t had a parallel since (The 90s, while unequivocally bearing some fantastic works, was a lot more scattershot and terrible than people give it credit for. The 21st century seems to be even worse in that regard).

Despite all of those great picks that are ingrained into the popular culture from that wonderful decennary of horrific perms, Walkmans and the satanic Thatcher/Reagan premierships, I have a virtual inability to come back to anything other than a cult hit made right in the middle of director William Friedkin’s career, a film that has always remained somewhat under the radar despite being his magnum opus (again, I’m sincerely not looking for cheap heat, I adore The French Connection and The Exorcist but my subjective cinematic experience is a stubborn bastard). Blessed with an addictive original score, excellent performances, ludicrously good cinematography and set pieces that are measured yet ballsy, To Live and Die in L.A. is a masterpiece that cries out for perennial propagation.

Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) is a U.S. Secret Service agent investigating counterfeit money rings in Los Angeles. Slick, brash and handsome, Chance is aggressively passionate in his work and looks upon his older partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) with an inquisitive adulation that a son might have for a father. Despite Chance’s proclivity for reckless hot-headedness, Hart is fond of the younger man, the duo lamenting the fact that the latter is retiring in three days after a good run of it together. (Friedkin co-wrote the screenplay with source novelist and ex-Agent Gerald Petievich, cultivating a palpable air of quotidian grit and camaraderie).

Acting on a tip-off regarding a suspicious warehouse in the California desert, Hart goes it alone on a stakeout hoping to gather evidence of the shenanigans of one Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), a reputed local cash printer with a tight operation and a talent for eluding the long arm of the law. As he rummages in a dumpster for fake bills that didn’t cut it, Hart is confronted by Masters and his right-hand man Jack (Jack Hoar) and promptly shotgunned to death. A devastated Chance arrives at the scene, the sight of his murdered mentor destroying any vestige of idealism and ethics then and there.

Reluctantly partnered with wet-behind-the-ears agent John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance angrily explains that Hart was one of a kind and his death requires retribution in whatever form may come, believing that it is his right and duty to nail Masters and eschewing the time-wasting concepts of procedure and morality in general. Gleaning information from his sexually coercive association with parolee Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), the increasingly callous and unpredictable Chance presses Vukovich into assisting with an undercover investigation where the aforementioned misogynistic extortion is only one of many horrors along the way. Fabrication? Armed Robbery? Murder? It’s all in a day’s work if they’re going to thwart Masters, the serpentine criminal mastermind proving to be more dangerous and resourceful than they could have imagined as moral distinctions are blown out of the water.

The facets that delineate To Live and Die in L.A. as something truly special are in abundance, a glaring example being the way it perfectly subverts every convention of the cops-and-robbers template. Divergent to the typical ‘monster hunter becomes the monster’ formula, Chance is not an upstanding man who loses his way via obsession but a cruel narcissist from the outset. Shallow, condescending, self-centred and just mean for the sake of it, he couldn’t care less who he hurts in his mission, bluntly critical and dismissive of any reservation that Agent Vukovich has about their methods and nonchalantly replying to the desperate Ruth’s plea for a cash injection with the line: ”You want bread? F**k a baker”. He never once stops to consider the possibility that the deceased partner he idolised would be disgusted with his mountingly vicious discarding of scruples, Petersen’s deftly mannered performance and cocksure swagger crafting an anti-hero that is truly next level.

In an early career-best performance, Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Rick Masters graces the audience with a fascinatingly complex and disarming villain. While it is arguably redundant to cite redeeming characteristics (given that he’s a murdering sociopath), the film conveys perverse smarts in rendering this antagonist as infinitely more likeable than our supposed hero. Masters doesn’t habitually treat his acquaintances like shit as Chance does, maintaining a constant air of sangfroid as he endeavours to conduct business with as little hassle as possible. A quiet and cultured individual, Masters applies ruthlessness when it is astute as opposed to wanton cruelty, his short, wiry frame and restrained demeanour seeing him underestimated by several cohorts who learn the hard way that he is not a man to be crossed. He’s a magnetically strange and pensive chap, slaving over intimate paintings before setting them alight, watching them burn to cinders in a trance-like state. This seemingly irrational destruction of his work indicates a risk addiction in an otherwise canny psyche.

Then there’s that damn OST. Composed and performed by iconic British new-wave outfit Wang Chung, the score was written and completed in a fortnight, an amazing feat given its symbiosis with events on-screen, not a note feels rushed or out of place. In a fantastic early sequence, the camera focuses intently on Masters as he creates the funny money from scratch, the band’s excellent, energetic instrumental ‘City of the Angels’ taking charge as our foe’s intricate process is musically juxtaposed with the opening’s vibrantly coloured credit shots, painting Los Angeles as a wild and mysterious urban landscape fraught with possibility, be it excitement and/or danger (Both Chance and Masters conflate these things, making them two sides of the same scary coin). The equally catchy title track and Wang Chung’s signature hit ‘Dance Hall Days’ amount to a great soundtrack that emboldens a rich snapshot of contemporaneous aesthetics and never dates it, a tricky accomplishment that deserves commendation.

With focal players who were unknown at the time but have become thoroughly accomplished since (Joining Dafoe, Petersen and Pankow are John Turturro in a small yet crucial role and the great Gary Cole as an unlucky fugitive), it is a bold and unapologetic study of self-destructive obsession, corruption and psychopathic capitalism that is free of dichotomies. There are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys here to speak of in context, just a bunch of human coyotes out to eat their fill and look after number one, whatever it takes. Awash with sun-kissed, violent nihilism, the fabulous performances and exciting script are magnified by Robby Müller’s slick cinematography and the great tunes, and it also features one of the greatest car chases ever committed to film. To Live & Die in L.A. won’t pick you up but it’ll put an indelible boot in your arse, and I shall stick my name to the claim that it’s another example of one of the greatest movies ever made being disturbingly overlooked.

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