" 'To Live and Die in L.A.': Neo-Noir Was the Case. Part One of Four."
William Friedkin’s 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A. is not only a terrific crime film but a true neo-noir film. The film contains noir stylistic elements such as shadows and symbols like Venetian blinds; it features fatal women and fatal men; and most of all, it features the city as spectacle, with Los Angeles seen as a corrupting labyrinth from which there is no escape.
The 1980’s saw the return of noir. Labeled neo-noir, Body Heat was seen as the film that heralded noir’s return, but with new elements (however as Foster Hirsh argues in Lost Highways and Detours, the differentiating elements of neo-noir are difficult to pin down). While some critics argue that noir went dormant after 1959’s Touch of Evil, one can argue that 1960’s films such as Harper, The Manchurian Candidate, Marlowe, and Point Blank; and 1970’s films such as The Parallax View, The Conversation, Chinatown, and Taxi Driver prove otherwise. In any event, many critics point to the 1980’s as when noir returned in force, beginning with the 1981 film Body Heat. If Body Heat began neo-noir, L.A. showed just how much the genre had to offer.
Body Heat is often mentioned as one of the first neo-noir films.
Film noir incorporates elements such as a wrong turn leading a good person somewhere they normally wouldn’t go, usually leading to ruin or destruction. The city is often a vital element of noir with the city often being a corrupting force full of dangerous twists and turns. The character of the fatal woman or fatal man is seen, someone who leads a character to destruction. Finally, there are visual elements such as shadows, Venetian blinds, and rain.
Released in 1985 to modest commercial but good critical success, L.A. is frequently listed as a crime film (which it is) but not as a noir film. Our text lists many neo-noir titles but L.A. is not among them. Neither allmovie.com nor the Internet Movie Database list it as neo-noir. However, a close examination of L.A. supports the idea that it is not only neo-noir, but one of the genre’s strongest examples.
A brief summary of the film is necessary to understand its noir elements and why L.A. qualifies as neo-noir. The film deals with Treasury agent Richard Chance who pursues counterfeiter Eric Masters. Chance is out for revenge after Masters kills his partner Jimmy Hart. Chance’s new partner John Vukovich is slowly corrupted by Chance as Chance will do whatever is necessary, illegal or legal, to apprehend Masters. Both Masters and Chance destroy the people around them, ultimately dying due to their self-destructive personas.
Agent John Vukovich (John Pankow) on stakeout. The heavy rain here foreshadows the destruction that is about to unfold.
This long shot captures Vukovich’s view as he stakes out the scene. The long shot is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s use of long shots in Rear Window to capture L.B. Jeffries spying on his neighbors.
Fatal woman Bianca leads corrupt attorney Max Waxman to his destruction. Note the classic noir symbol of the Venetian blind, the heavy use of shadow, and the neon that casts a dirty light on the proceedings.
L.A. incorporates many traditional noir visual elements, one of which is rain. Heavy rain is falling during Chance and Vukovich’s stake out of a suspect’s home. Like many other noir films, the rain here foreshadows death. Here, the rain takes place before Masters confronts crooked attorney Max Waxman about stolen money, an encounter that ends in Waxman’s death. This particular scene features femme fatale Bianca setting Waxman up in true fatal woman tradition.
Clagett, Thomas D. William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession, and Reality. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2003.
Gallafent, James. “Worlds Without Consequence: Two Versions of Film Noir in the 1980’s.” Neo Noir. Eds. Bould, Mark, Katrina Glitre, and Greg Tuck. London: Wallflower Press, 2009. 75-89.
Hirsch, Foster: The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2008.
---. Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir. New York: Proscenium Publishers, Inc. 1999.
Holt, Jason. “A Darker Shade: Realism in Neo-Noir.” The Philosophy of Film Noir. Ed. Mark T.
Conrad. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006. 23-40.
“Living in a Counterfeit World: The Making of To Live and Die in L.A.”. (Supplementary material on DVD release of To Live and Die in L.A.). 2003. DVD. MGM Home Entertainment, 2003.
To Live and Die in L.A. Dir. William Friedkin. Perfs. William Peterson, Willem Dafoe, and JohnPankow. 1985. United Artists. DVD. MGM, 2011.