(Originally posted on 31 May 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
(WARNING: BIG TIME SPOILER ALERT! If you have not seen To Live and Die in L.A. and have any intentions to in the future, do not read this piece!)
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me how I choose my weekly Movie Moment. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how to answer him, mostly because I don’t really have a method- mostly I just pick scenes I like a lot. When he offered a few examples of Moments he might choose, my answer became clear — the only deciding factor for my Movie Moments is whether I think I’ll be able to write extensively about them. In selecting scenes for my weekly column, I find that I need to choose scenes that will allow me to write about more than simply the scene itself. Sometimes the scene will give me the chance to expound on an actor I love (as in my piece on A Fish Called Wanda) and other times on my own personal experience (like my post on La Belle Noiseuse). But most of the time, a great Movie Moment is one that illustrates the greatness of the movie around it, and occasionally, it will transform an otherwise good movie into a pretty great one.
In many ways, To Live and Die in L.A. plays like an 80s West Coast counterpart to Friedkin’s earlier The French Connection (a film I love, as you may recall). But while Connection’s Popeye Doyle was single-minded in his pursuit of criminals, the role was also full of sardonic humor and goofball asides, as when he would ask questions like “do you like to pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” to disorient a suspect. On the other hand, U.S. Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) is all business. He’s as much of a hotshot as Popeye, but he takes himself completely seriously, and his work is more or less his life.
Consider the scene where Chance visits his girlfriend Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) after a long day of work. They have sex, but afterwards the conversation turns to work. It turns out that Ruth is a paroled ex-con who Chance is pumping for information. When she asks him for more money in return for her services, he coldly responds, “Uncle Sam don’t care about your expenses. You want bread, fuck a baker.” Later, when she asks what he would do if she stopped giving him tips, he pauses a second, then says, “I’d have your parole revoked.”
It’s kind of strange to watch a straight-faced cop movie like To Live and Die in L.A. in our post-Shane Black age. For one thing, much of the storyline feels pretty formulaic. First, Chance’s partner and best friend, three days shy of retirement, gets killed in a botched bust. Then Chance resolves to solve the case and find the killer by any means necessary. After that, Chance is reluctantly paired with a new partner named Vukovich (John Pankow), who seems too green to keep up with him. It seems like the screenplay hardly misses a cliché — the weirdo villain (a counterfeiter named Masters and played by Willem Dafoe), the sleazeball lawyer, the shady procurement of funds, the chief who dresses down his agents. Even the big chase scene (one of the greats, as it happens) seemingly comes right on cue.
But then something happens that we hadn’t anticipated. Just as Chance and Vukovich are thiiiiiiiiis close to finally busting Masters, Masters’ bodyguard pulls out a shotgun and shoots Chance in the face. I remember the first time I saw To Live and Die in L.A., this scene shocked the hell out of me. In fact, I had considered submitting this scene for last week’s list of Memorable Death Scenes. When watching the film again, I decided against it because the death itself wasn’t especially memorable by itself. But in the context of the film, it’s a bravura moment. For one thing, normally at this point in the story, we would expect the big bust to go haywire, with Masters escaping the scene of the crime and Chance and Vukovich giving pursuit, perhaps calling for some backup. But there’s none of that here.
It’s at this point that Friedkin’s reliance on formula throughout the film begins to make a whole lot more sense. While Friedkin wasn’t the top-rank Hollywood director that he was during the 70s, he was still a top-notch action filmmaker. All of the formulaic plot points in To Live and Die in L.A. actually serve a rather unique purpose — they lull the audience into a comfort zone, to the point where we anticipate everything that’s going to happen next. Just when we’re sure how everything is going to turn out, he pulls the rug out from under us, no less masterfully than Hitchcock himself did forty-odd minutes into Psycho. After all, why would the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist make a by-the-book cop movie unless he had some trick up his sleeve? (Everyone who has seen Jade, please don’t answer that.)
However, this death scene is equally shocking because Chance isn’t the sort of cop-movie protagonist who we expect to get killed off. He’s more of an antihero than a flat-out hero, but his complexities make him interesting. Everything in his life revolves around his work, and although he sometimes bends or even breaks the rules, Petersen and Friedkin always show that he does so for the right reasons. Just as importantly, he always seems to be on the verge of something better — a more evenhanded relationship with Ruth, forging a bond with his new partner, or even solving the case. So much is left unfinished in Chance’s life that the suddenness of his death is as shocking as its brutality.
But of course, that’s the job, isn’t it? Early in the film, Jimmy asks Chance if he has any plans for retirement, and Chance says he doesn’t think about it. He’s so devoted to his work that he can’t imagine a life without it. So it is with the film itself. After a brief prologue, nearly everything in To Live and Die in L.A. is somehow related to the case at its center, and it’s a job that’s bigger than any one character, even its ostensible protagonist. In the film’s final scene, Vukovich pays a visit to Ruth and informs her of his death. But rather than consoling her on her loss, the two speak pragmatically, discussing her semi-professional relationship with Chance, up until Vukovich’s perfect final line:
“You’re working for me now.”