• Michael Rickard II

"'To Live and Die in L.A.': Neo-Noir Was the Case. Part Four 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 fourof this discussion.

L.A. features several set pieces that conform to Hirsch’s assertion in Detours and Lost Highways that “Bizarre backgrounds encourage the splashy visual set-pieces that decorate the genre. Usually involving a chase, a murder, a showdown, a release of tension of violence, a moment of madness, the noir set-piece is a showcase for the kind of baroque sensibility that most American genres have little use for” (86). This set-piece is the film’s climactic confrontation between Eric Masters and John Vukovich. As Masters burns his counterfeiting plant, Vukovich goes to arrest him after Masters’ henchman has shot and killed Vukovich’s partner, Chance.

Eric Masters is indifferent as his world burns around him. In the film we see him paint beautiful works of art only to burn them. There’s little doubt he feels he can rebuild his criminal empire but his self-destructive nature is about to catch up with him.

Treasury agent Vukovich symbolically rises from the dead. The once by-the-book law officer is reborn in his dead partner’s image as someone who lives by own rules. Although Vukovich lives on, his former identity is destroyed by the actions of fatal man Richard Chance.

William Friedkin notes that Eric Masters dies by fire, just as he lived by fire. In a classic twist on the concept of the fatal man, Masters and his counterpart Richard Chance are doomed once they cross paths with one another.

L.A. features several set pieces that conform to Hirsch’s assertion in Detours and Lost Highways that “Bizarre backgrounds encourage the splashy visual set-pieces that decorate the genre. Usually involving a chase, a murder, a showdown, a release of tension of violence, a moment of madness, the noir set-piece is a showcase for the kind of baroque sensibility that most American genres have little use for” (86). This set-piece is the film’s climactic confrontation between Eric Masters and John Vukovich. As Masters burns his counterfeiting plant, Vukovich goes to arrest him after Masters’ henchman has shot and killed Vukovich’s partner, Chance.

The scene is magnificently shot with red gel that accentuates the flames surrounding the characters. When Vukovich is momentarily mesmerized by the flames around him, Masters strikes him with a 2x4, knocking him senseless. Masters piles paper on top of Vukovich and goes to set him on fire. However Vukovich rises from the dead and shoots Masters. Masters drops the fiery torch he is holding into a puddle of lighter fluid and is immolated. Vukovich shoots him until he has no bullets left. This scene is symbolic on several levels. The first is that Masters dies by fire (director Friedkin recalls Masters lived by fire). Earlier in the film we see Masters creating artwork only to burn it. The second is that Vukovich undergoes a baptism by fire and emerges as a new person. This is seen when he rises from the “grave” of shredded paper. It is reinforced when the camera freezes as he shoots Masters and it turns to black and white. Vukovich has been a failure as an agent before, falling asleep during a stakeout, and his actions leading to Chance’s death. Now, he has become a copy of Chance. This is summed up when Vukovich confronts Chance’s informant and tells her “You work for me now”.

Like most of the film’s characters, Chance’s informant Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel) is duplicitous, feeding Chance information for her own benefit and hoping to destroy him in the process.

The film ends as Vukovich’s transformation into a ruthless simulacrum of Chance is completed when he tells Chance’s former informant Ruth that she works for him now.

With the elements of the fatal man and fatal woman, the city as spectacle, and traditional noir visual elements, To Live and Die in L.A. is built on a solid film noir foundation. William Friedkin’s use of post-feminist characters, dynamic use of color, a renegade cop, and a modern soundtrack performed by new wave group Wang Chung make what could have been a traditional noir film into one of the best examples of what neo-noir can be. To Live and Die in L.A. is definitely a case of neo-noir.

Works Cited

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.

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