James O’Meara’s article on “Essential Films . . . & Others” was inspired by my “Ten Favorite Films,” but it inspired me in turn to reflect on my own list of essential films, essential defined by Coleridge as “that to which with the greatest pleasure the reader returns.” For many of my favorite films are not works to which I return with pleasure. Vertigo and Blue Velvet, for instance, are too emotionally harrowing to just pop in on a rainy afternoon. So this spurred me to reflect on the movies I watch, again and again, simply for pleasure: if I am under the weather, too tired to work, or just want to savor my solitude.
It is a very different list, heavy on sci-fi, spectacle, spycraft, and silliness: The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, The Fifth Element, Flash Gordon, Hudson Hawk, Goldfinger, Octopussy, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Blade Runner, and To Live and Die in L.A.
To Live and Die in L.A. is my equivalent to James’ Manhunter, an ’80s time-capsule with a captivating visual style, excellent period music (Wang Chung), and real—though often overlooked—substance. I became an adult in the 1980s, so it is natural for me to feel a certain amount of nostalgia for the music, movies, styles, and politics of the era. I know Reagan was not really a good President, but he would have made a great king: the embodiment of everything wholesome in American culture. Even with all I know, the sound of his voice in the film still comforts me, and it has nothing to do with the paroxysms he induces in the Left (although those are fun too).
To Live and Die in L.A. was released in 1985. It stars William Petersen and Willem Dafoe as well as Dean Stockwell and John Turturro. It is the only movie that I actually like by Jewish director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection). The movie is filled with striking images—Willem Dafoe burning a painting, the shadows of palm trees on a plaza in late afternoon, a money-printing montage, a presidential motorcade, all captured in a fluid, dynamic visual style. Although at the time, some critics compared the aesthetic to Miami Vice, in truth the movie focuses on the least glamorous parts of Los Angeles: docks, rail yards, freeways, refineries, junk yards, the “river,” dive bars, etc., but manages to aestheticize them with bravura directing and camera work.
The core of the film is a character study in corruption. The main antagonists are a Secret Service agent named Richie Chance (Petersen) and a counterfeiter named Rick Masters (Dafoe). Although they are on opposite sides of the law, they have a lot in common: They are cold-blooded and have nerves of steel. Men like this actually have low resting pulse rates. This makes them cool in tense situations, but it also leads them to seek out tense situations to stimulate themselves, lest they sink into the torpor of inaction. They are restless, always getting into things. They are prone to take risks, cut corners, and cross lines. If they lack conscience, they can easily become criminals—or they become cops or soldiers and then commit crimes.
The cold-bloodedness of Chance and Masters is highlighted by their associates, who lack nerve. A couple of them even possesses a bit of conscience. Masters’ contrast is his “mule” Cody played by John Turturro, a twitchy fellow who suffers from an ulcer and whose bravado comes off as brittle and false. When Cody is arrested, Masters realizes that he lacks the strength to do jail time. He will turn against him. Thus he has to be killed.
We first meet Chance in the pre-credit sequence, when he coolly deals with a suicide bomber who is trying to kill President Reagan. I first saw To Live and Die in L.A. at a midnight movie in a college town, early in 1986, shortly after the terrorist attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports. When the terrorist, who vows to “bomb myself on you and all the enemies of Islam,” is foiled and explodes as he falls from a building, the audience burst into applause. Chance’s partner, Jimmy Hart, who is a few days from retirement, is far more shaken up than Chance. “I’m too old for this, Richie,” he pants. The next time we see Richie, he is base jumping from a bridge.
Chance’s other contrasts are his informant Ruth and his new partner John Vukovich. Ruth is tormented by anxiety and conscience. She fears the criminals she informs on and thinks the stars are “God’s eyes” watching her (a notion that Chance, who lacks conscience, casually dismisses). In one scene, where Chance is high on adrenaline and Ruth is melting down from anxiety, she shrieks “What’s the matter with you?” (It’s that low resting pulse.) Like Ruth, Vukovich lacks nerve and has a conscience, but in the course of the movie, Chance corrupts him, until he is framing suspects and stealing to catch Masters. In the end, Vukovich even dresses like Chance. But he will never be a Chance, because both danger and morality stir him too deeply. To Chance, that just makes him a “pussy.”
When I first saw this film, Chance and Masters seemed very grown up and manly. (Both Dafoe and Petersen were about 30 at the time.) Both characters are capable of violence and daring, but in retrospect, they seem more like lost boys than grown men. The only really mature, centered, manly character is the older agent, Jimmy Hart.
Interestingly, Chance’s manner around Hart is boyish, submissive, and slightly effeminate. Petersen has a well-developed, masculine body, but his combination of tight faded jeans plus dark shirts and jackets accentuates his hips, giving him a womanish aspect. His curly hair is tinged with gray, but his face is unlined and heart-shaped, which adds to the unsettling aspect of androgyny and eternal boyhood.
Dafoe’s Masters is more manly than Chance because he is more ruthless, more in control, more of a mastermind. (The names Chance and Masters are not exactly subtle.) Perhaps to set Masters’ ruthlessness in relief, he is portrayed as an artist, with well-developed tastes and a somewhat fruity wardrobe. He has a hot girlfriend, a modern dancer who is much taller than him. But Friedkin has Masters whine womanishly about working with rubber gloves on and even treats us to a fake “gay kiss.” (Masters actually begins kissing a male body double, then Friedkin cuts to him kissing his girlfriend.) Thus Masters is a strange combination of decadent aesthete and ruthless criminal, the Gabriele D’Annunzio of crime.
I enjoy To Live and Die in L.A. I return to it again and again. I highly recommend it. But I would never be comfortable calling it a great film. Yet it is highly entertaining, with images and characters and music that will stay with you. The main cast is white. Blacks are portrayed as no-account criminals and braggarts. The there is no offensive anti-white propaganda. Even the fact that everyone smokes (filthy habit) gives the movie a pre-PC feel. Every time I watch it, the present day seems more “dated,” and the ’80s look better and better.
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