"'To Live and Die in L.A.': Neo-Noir Was the Case. Part Three of Four."
William Friedkins's To Live and Die in L.A., a terrific thriller film, but does it qualify as film noir? Join me for part three of this discussion.
There is further support for L.A. being noir if one agrees with Foster Hirsch that “Indeed for a policier to qualify as legitimately noir, the cop must be attracted to or in some way be complicit with the cry of the city at night. If he remains an observer who is not innocent of any transgression, the film is a crime movie that has not earned its stripes” (157). As we shall see, the film’s protagonist, Treasury agent Richard Chance discards the law in his pursuit of counterfeiter Eric Masters.
The film has a strong villain and a fatal man with counterfeiter Eric Masters (played superbly by Willem Dafoe in one of his earlier roles). Like Harry Fabian in The Night and the City, Masters is a charismatic, good looking man who has no scruples and can manipulate people around him. A true fatal man, Masters brings death to people who cross his path. Masters murders a Treasury agent who stakes out his lair as well as an attorney who scams him. Like Scarlet Street, he has a female subordinate who helps him with his crimes. In the spirit of strong femme fatales like Matty Walker in Body Heat, Masters’ partner Bianca is a survivor and she ultimately eludes the law, with the assumption that she has taken Masters’ remaining assets after his death.
Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) is a complex character. A counter-feiter, he uses his illicit gains to finance his paintings which he then burns. Masters is self-destructive just like his parallel character Richard Chance.
Masters’ lover Bianca Torres (Debra Feuer) has the look of a classic fatal woman, but she is portrayed as every bit the equal of Masters (and arguably his superior as she survives the film’s events).
The film’s protagonist Richard Chance is a fatal man himself. Unlike the fatal man Johnny Prince in Scarlet Street who is malicious, Chance is reminiscent of fatal woman Sue Harvey in Detour, a woman whose good intentions lead to her boyfriend’s ruin. It is established early on that Chance is a free-spirited individual who does things his own ways. His long-time partner Jimmy Hart warns him he will never live to retirement because of his recklessness, a fact Chance seems relegated to. Chance is a thrill-seeker, as seen by his hobby of base-jumping. Like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Chance seems to be predisposed to stepping over the line, given the right circumstances. When Masters murders his partner, that is all the push he needs.
Detective Chance prepares to base-jump, a sign of his recklessness.
Chance slowly corrupts his straight-laced partner John Vukovich as the film progresses. Initially, Vukovich is passive in covering up for Chance in stealing evidence from a crime scene but he slides down a slippery slope as he helps Chance to rob a courier (who is actually an undercover agent). By the end of the film, Vukovich has taken on Chance’s identity, with him telling Chance’s informant Ruth that she works for him now. Looking at the film’s events, there is strong evidence that Chance leads Vukovich to destruction. Although Vukovich survives the film physically, he is spiritually destroyed, taking on Chance’s amoral nature, and in effect, transforming into Chance.
Another noir element is the city. In The Dark Side of the Screen Forest Hirsch states that, “The city as a cradle of crime of cauldron of negative energy is the inevitable setting for film noir” (83), in this case showing that L.A.’s use of the city is further evidence of the film’s noir status. The city of Los Angeles has been a favorite locale for noir films ranging from early noir (The Big Sleep) to early neo-noir (Chinatown). Here, the city is full of corruption with corrupt attorneys like Waxman and the aptly named Grimes, helping criminal mastermind Eric Masters to work his counterfeiting operation. It is arguable that conventional law enforcement methods cannot overcome crime so Chance (and later Vukovich) must step outside of the law to stop criminals.
L.A. like some of the realistic noir films of the 1950’s steps out of the studio to show the city as a living and breathing character. Scenes take place in and around the city. Friedkin chose to shoot the film on location and eschewed studios for interior shots, again using location shooting whenever possible. The result is a film that captures the sun-ravaged, gritty streets of Los Angeles, a reminder that the city’s corrupt nature has not changed since Chinatown.
Director William Friedkin eschewed the studio, shooting on location in Los Angeles whenever possible.
William Friedkin shot the film on location in Los Angeles (and the outlying region), capturing the city in its sunbaked sordidness. The city as spectacle is one of the film’s strongest noir elements.
One of the film’s strengths in its depiction of the city is that Friedkin employs a variety of locations in shooting the film. The film’s epic chase scene takes place not only in the city streets but anywhere a car can go. This symbolizes how Chance will take whatever path is necessary to get Eric Masters.
Director Friedkin relies on red gel in several scenes in order to create a hellish atmosphere. Friedkin also uses music and the sound of heavy wind to create an almost alien vibe in the picture. The film could be just as well be located somewhere on Mars as in Los Angeles.
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.