Another noir element used in L.A. is the use of shadow. The film uses shadow and light to create a dual image on several characters’ faces, symbolizing their duplicitous nature. In another scene, Chance and Vukovich are seen in a hallway with shadows of bars on the wall, a clear symbol of the prison their actions have trapped them in and the real prison they face if their actions are revealed.
Friedkin acknowledges noir’s roots of shadow but also demonstrates how color films can be just as noirish as black and white films are. Red is used to symbolize the film’s constant tension and unpredictable violence. Red gel is used in several scenes (primarily the film’s climax) to symbolize war and accentuate the film’s heated atmosphere.
John Vukovich argues with his partner Richard Chance (William Petersen, right) over Chance’s crooked policing methods. Note the shadows on the walls, hinting at the cage both men’s illegal activities have put them in, as well as the use of red lighting to hint at their tension.
The film has a recurring motif of long, winding, seemingly endless roads. This is seen when Treasury agent Jimmy Hart takes a winding road to the country to search Master’s rural counterfeiting plant (This ultimately leads to Hart’s death when he is ambushed by Masters and his henchman). In another scene, Friedkin employs a long take to show the film’s protagonist Chance driving through the winding streets of L.A. to his informant’s house. In the film’s climax, Chance’s partner Vukovich drives to confront Masters at his counterfeiting plant in the city. Friedkin films a winding scene with L.A. in a red filter, evoking a hellish atmosphere. In all of these scenes, the visuals suggest that there are no clear cut paths and the twisted roads seem to lead either to confusion or destruction. These twisting roads are reminiscent of other famous road scenes such as in Detour, Blood Simple, and the noir burlesque Sin City.
Long, winding roads are a recurring motif in film noir. Here, Friedkin employs several shots of roads to show the perilous journey of the film’s characters. Although most of the film takes place in the city, this important scene shows agent Jimmy Hart driving through barren country, unaware that he is headed for destruction.
Another scene, this time showing the city at dusk as agent Chance drives to see the informant he is blackmailing. As Chance will learn, there is no clear path to the truth.
The ultimate example of the film’s use of winding roads is the chase scene involving Chance and Vukovich fleeing from unknown assailants. The two Treasury agents have just robbed a courier (who they believe is a criminal but who turns out to be an undercover FBI agent). When they are shot at, they race through the city, attempting to escape their unknown pursuers. The chase takes them through narrow streets of a business district with delivery trucks blocking their path. Every time the agents think they have escaped, a new set of pursuers shows up. The chase take alongside a train and then through a culvert in the Los Angeles River. When their car is surrounded, Chance decides to escape by driving down the wrong end of a highway (a magnificent scene that Friedkin shot with the proviso that the scene would outdo the classic car chase scene from his film, The French Connection or he would scrap it). The agents escape, and the scene is symbolic of the twists and turns their investigation takes them on as well as representative of how the wrong path they are on.
The film’s epic chase scene features Chance and Vukovich being pursued by unknowns (actually federal agents). The chase is a wild ride through Los Angeles, both on the streets and off the streets.
Chance and Vukovich find that the twisted and winding path they are on has no escape.
A symbolic warning for the film’s protagonists that their methods of pursuing Masters are wrong. Although Chance and Vukovich find temporary relief, the road ultimately leads to destruction-physical destruction for Chance and moral destruction for Vukovich.
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.