The smog-choked Los Angeles horizon, edged with skyscrapers and palm trees and power lines. A counterfeit-money-making sequence sexier than a sex scene. A foot chase through LAX on a moving walkway. A glorious fever dream of a car chase through Long Beach.
Although William Friedkin chose not to film Los Angeles’s typical landmarks, To Live and Die in L.A. feels like the most L.A. movie ever made. It’s a city of oil refineries, beer joints, burger stands, topless bars, airports, and train stations, viewed through the lens of Robby Muller’s sun-soaked cinematography. In the director’s commentary, William Friedkin explains, “the entire film is about counterfeit relationships, not just counterfeit money. And it’s a metaphor for a lot of what I’ve seen in the years that I’ve been at work in Los Angeles.”
To Live and Die in L.A. is a neon noir based on Gerald Petievich’s novel, a fictionalized account of his time working in the Secret Service. It is the story of Richard Chance (William L. Petersen), a Secret Service agent and adrenaline junkie in pursuit of Willem Dafoe, who plays counterfeiter Rick Masters, a provocative artist who drives a beautiful 1984 Ferrari 308 QV GTSi. He also loves to set things on fire. Chance’s partner is murdered by Masters just days before his retirement, and Chance must avenge him.
Petersen and Dafoe were unknown when Friedkin cast them. In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review, she wrote that Dafoe is “a fine actor with a face that will bring him villain’s work forever.” Although Dafoe may have the face of a villain, Petersen’s character is just as shady, and arguably more unethical. Friedkin has often said he’s fascinated by the thin line between criminals and cops and their “interchangeable natures,” and Masters and Chance are no exception: they are two sides of the same coin, two men who share a death wish, driving toward the same fate.
In order to catch Masters, Chance and his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) decide to go undercover, but they need to front $30,000 to make a deal for his counterfeit money to prove they’re legit. The Treasury Department won’t give them more than $10,000, so Chance and Vukovich try to steal $50,000 from a jewelry buyer who’s in town from San Francisco. But their heist goes south, the buyer is killed (and later revealed to be an FBI agent working undercover), and Chance and Vukovich are pursued by countless men with guns. The ensuing chase is spectacular.
In Roger Ebert’s review of To Live and Die in L.A., he wrote: “The great chases are rarely just chases. They involve some kind of additional element—an unexpected vehicle, an unusual challenge, a strange setting.” For Ebert, the “additional element” is the chase’s direction: Chance speeds down the Terminal Island Freeway the wrong way in a 1985 Chevy Impala. The chase traverses an industrial, anonymous wasteland, speeding through alleys and tunnels, around trucks, very nearly into walls, alongside a train, across the tracks in front of the train, then down into the concrete basin of the Los Angeles River.
Stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker collaborated with Friedkin to dream up the sequence. Robby Müller wasn’t comfortable shooting the chase scene, so second unit director Robert Yeoman filled in for him, and it took six weeks to film. Unlike shooting the chase in The French Connection, Friedkin had permits and full cooperation from the city, and although they tagged a few cars in the process, no one was injured.
Friedkin decided to complicate the chase during filming: he wouldn’t just have one or two agents in pursuit of Chance and Vukovich, there would be men everywhere, an improbable and nightmarish scenario Friedkin described as “Kafkaesque.” After losing one tail, two more cars appear. “Is it the same guy?” Chance asks. “It’s two different guys.” There are cars behind them. Heading toward them. Gunmen on the L.A.River’s embankment, and on the bridge. Chance and Vukovich are eventually surrounded by their assailants in the street, with only one way out: a freeway off-ramp. Chance takes a good long look at the Wrong Way and Do Not Enter signs and says, “We’re going this way.”
Chance is in the moment, steely, sweating, and focused. William Petersen insisted on driving himself, and in the driver’s seat, he seems at home. Chance reminisces about bungee jumping while an unhinged Vukovich has a flashback to the brutal death of the jeweler. Vukovich is visibly, audibly panicked—the chase’s sound was recorded after, and his breathing, whimpering, and cursing is amplified. Horns blare, tires squeal, guns fire. It’s practically impossible to stay off the edge of your seat.
The chase is disorienting: we experience the thrill with Chance in the driver’s seat, then we are in the backseat looking over Chance’s shoulder with Vukovich, feeling out of control, then watching who’s coming for us through a bullet hole in the broken, spiderwebbed rear window. An 18-wheeler jackknifes behind Chance and Vukovich, traffic comes to a grinding halt, and Chance glides onto the other side of the freeway, finally free of their pursuers. Chance is triumphant, and Vukovich melts down on the side of the road.
The chase’s finishing touch is the most Los Angeles voiceover possible: a woman on the radio reports wreckage caused a backup in traffic on the freeway, but it shouldn’t hold up anyone too long. There is no mention of the shootout or the murdered agent. “A minor tie-up. It’s a very simple affair.”
In the memoir The Friedkin Connection, Friedkin admitted he’d contemplated for years how he might surpass The French Connection chase, and a chase going the wrong way at high speed felt like the answer. Though he might be biased, Buddy Joe Hooker cited this chase as one of his all-time favorites and called it, “the best one that had ever been done, with all due respect to The French Connection and Bullitt.”
The success of The French Connection’s chase was in its editing, not its stunts, and at the time To Live and Die in L.A. was made, no one had done a car chase going against traffic. To Live and Die in L.A. equals The French Connection in inventiveness and intensity and its novel stunts. While William Friedkin might not have eclipsed his first iconic chase, he matched it with his second.