To Live and Die in L.A. was a much-needed hit for William Friedkin after a string of unsuccessful films financially. Right before he made the totally forgettable Deal of the Century starring Chevy Chase. This came after Cruising which was dogged controversy with its depiction of the gay S&M world. His biggest flop came with his masterpiece Sorcerer which was unfairly compared the original Wages of Fear even if both films couldn’t get much different with their takes on the source novel. He of course had enormous success in the early ’70s with The French Connection and The Exorcist.
Friedkin was very much on home turf with To Live and Die in L.A. it’s a crime film with traces of the fatalism rampant in the most extreme side of film noir. William Peterson had only one a small role in Michael Mann’s Thief previously when he landed the lead of Richard Chance. He perfectly plays the secret service agent who will do anything to capture the counterfeiter who killed his partner. It’s undeniably his finest on-screen work which the possible exception of Manhunter which came out the year after and was very similar in style.
The cast consisted mostly of than unknowns because Friedkin decided against using stars because the budget was fairly low. It has a very young Willem Dafoe as the counterfeiter and along with Platoon the year after really kickstarted his career in full gear. John Turturro appears in a small role around the same time he appeared in Miami Vice, rumour had it Mann tried to sue Friedkin for similarities but that’s been debunked because they are good friends. The veteran character actor Dean Stockwell appears as does Robert Downey Sr. in a rare role in a film he didn’t write or direct.
The film contains an extraordinary car chase which gives his work The French Connection a run for its money. The cinematographer Robby Müller didn’t shoot it because he couldn’t figure out how to set it up which is funny because he has shot great car chases. Robert D. Yeoman who was shooting second unit stepped in and shot it, he ended up becoming Wes Anderson’s DOP years later. It has a great sunny ’80s L.A. noir aesthetic throughout the film which would be highly influential on films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Refn has said the iconic poster influenced him as much as the film.
To Live and Die in L.A. remains a high point of Friedkin’s career but sadly marked the moment right before his worked starting declining. However in recent years he has found new energy with his indy films Bug and Killer Joe which are some of the best. Arrow Video has compiled a bunch of new interviews with some of the cast most notably Peterson along with the composers and the stunt co-ordinator. Archival stuff includes the commentary with Friedkin, an old making of and along with a deleted scene and alternative ending. The first printing includes a booklet with new writing by Anne Billson.