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American Cinematographer Magazine

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
MGM Home Entertainment, $19.98

Unjustly overlooked upon its release in 1985, William Friedkin's crackling crime thriller To Live and Die in L.A. has developed a strong and devoted following over the years. The film plays like a sleeker, sexier version of Friedkin's early cop classic The French Connection, exploring the moral ambiguity that results when a law-enforcement agent becomes a little too zealous in his pursuit of a criminal. Fortunately, To Live and Die in L.A. avoids the half-baked psychology and hackneyed backstories that typically water down police and criminal characters alike in tales such as this. Instead, character is revealed solely through action. Featuring an exhilarating car chase that attempts to trump even the legendary sequence in The French Connection, as well as a truly shocking plot twist in its final act, To Live and Die in L.A. is Friedkin at his lean-and-mean best.

After his partner is murdered just days before his retirement by expert counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) swears to use any means necessary to take Masters down. His new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow), agrees to help him without realizing just how reckless and obsessive those means will become. The agents' increasingly amoral actions gradually become indistinguishable from those of their wily adversary.

To Live and Die in L.A. was shot swiftly on location in Los Angeles, and Friedkin hails its director of photography, Robby Muller, as the "master of the single-setup scene." Muller's cinematography beautifully conveys the dynamic visual range of Los Angeles, from the sun-baked freeways teeming with cars to Masters' postmodern, sparsely furnished hideout in the hills. MGM's new transfer of the film is a revelation compared to the muddy, washed-out version that was previously available on home video. Muller's images are crisp and well saturated with minimal grain and artifacts. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is clear and lively, and the pulsing, synth-driven score by Wang Chung might make the viewer feel slightly sentimental for '80s soundtracks.

MGM has stocked the DVD with satisfying supplements, including an audio commentary by Friedkin, theatrical trailers, deleted scenes and a making-of documentary. The latter features rare footage from the set and contemporary interviews with Friedkin, the actors, and several crewmembers. (Unfortunately, Muller isn't among them.) Friedkin reveals that in order to achieve spontaneity, he often cut and printed scenes that his actors thought were rehearsals. The highly charged performances by Petersen, Pankow and Dafoe, who were all relatively obscure at the time, make it clear that the gambit paid off.

The director also notes that a highly detailed montage of Masters' counterfeiting method achieved such verisimilitude that it got the production in some hot water with the very officials the film was portraying. (An actual counterfeiter who had done time for the offense served as a technical consultant for the scene, and the production made more than $1 million in funny money.) Propmaster Barry Bedig's son somehow obtained one of the production's one-sided $20 bills and tried to use it to buy candy. The Secret Service subsequently brought Bedig in for questioning six times, according to Friedkin. The frustrated director finally vented to Bedig, "Look, the next time you go down there, tell them to either book you or let you go!" Bedig replied, "What do you mean, book me?!"

The documentary also breaks down the film's famous car chase, during which the cops' car heads directly into oncoming traffic on a freeway. "It was not lost on me that [the car chase] was shot at the end of production," Pankow recalls with a laugh. "If something happened to one of us, they still had a movie."

Another worthy supplement is a truly tone-deaf alternate ending (with commentaries from cast and crew) that features a different fate for Chance. Studio executives begged Friedkin to opt for a slightly less downbeat conclusion, reasoning that the audience would like Chance too much to accept the original ending. Friedkin replied, "I'm not sure of that," and, fortunately, held his ground.

- Chris Pizzello

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.