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


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1980’s film noir in Los Angeles

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

There’s a belief among some that the film noir genre is the most uniquely “American” contribution to film. True or not, it endures, updated every generation or so.

It also remains difficult to define. According to one film-fan source, film noir “is a stylized genre of film marked by pessimism, fatalism, and cynicism.”

I once heard a better definition somewhere; the feeling that, for the movie’s hero, “fate extends a leg to trip him up at every turn.”


However you define it, the 1980’s noir, To Live And Die In L.A. (1985) is a classic of the style. While not darkly lit like the original noir films of the 1940’s (think Bogart), To Live And Die is simply a kick-ass cop flick with many of the classic noir elements: a flawed hero, a relentless pursuit of justice — and yes, the hostile hand of fate.

The main character is Treasury Agent Richard Chance, played by William Petersen. I’ve never understood why Petersen didn’t become a bigger star after this movie — he is electric on screen, with a driven intensity reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle (The French Connection). Petersen’s Agent Chance is, if anything, even more obsessed as he pursues a reptilian counterfeiter played by Willem Defoe.

The rest of the cast is fine — John Turturro, in particular, has a good turn as a hardened perp — but it’s Petersen who steals the show. Anyone who’s ever worked in law enforcement will recognize the type he captures here.

Another character in the movie is 1980’s Los Angeles: sunlit, scuzzy, glamorous, strange, sinister. There is a characterization of L.A. on film that has come to represent some tragic endpoint of America (see the recent Brad Pitt flick, Babylon), and that atmosphere is fully present here.

Especially for someone from the east coast, Los Angeles retains a fascination. It doesn’t look like a city per se — at least, not the east coast’s Euro-derived conception of one — yet it is still a concrete jungle. It sure is in this film.

This isn’t a good cop movie — it’s a great cop movie, with a very realistic feel and no clear-cut heroes. It also has likely one of the top three car chases in movie history (behind, again, The French Connection and Steve McQueen’s Bullitt).

By the way, all the French Connection references are no accident; To Live And Die shares the same director, William Friedkin.

Friedkin was something of an era-defining director — he also directed the scariest movie of all time, The Exorcist — yet he is rarely mentioned as one of Hollywood’s great directors. With three such films under his belt, you would think he would be. Reputations have endured for far less.

Either way, To Live And Die In L.A. is a forgotten classic, a merciless, unapologetic noir, all set within a Miami Vice-like L.A. Check it out on Roku’s prescription service or on TUBI. This one’s worth seeking out.

Enjoy the movie and Stay Safe!



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