To Live and Die in L.A. & Cruising, Reviewed January 21, 2020
Two neo-noirs from William Friedkin
he air in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) is thick and heavy with desperation, and it only gets thicker and heavier. This is one of those rogue-officer movies in which
the rogue officer(s) in question grows progressively unhinged in his determination to make right a situation he thinks unfolded wrongly. His famish for justice in the film carves into his insides. He's so unhinged that it’s almost funny — his unhingedness is rooted in self-delusion and gassed-up machismo but more so the latter. (Perhaps I should say it’s tragicomically funny, since, spoiler alert, the rogue cop ends up as violently spoiled as the person he’s trying to avenge.)
The rogue officer in To Live and Die in L.A.
is named Richard Chance, and is played by William Petersen with a just-right sense of self-misunderstanding. Petersen’s Chance, a U.S. Secret Service agent, thinks he’s smarter, sexier, cooler than he is. The character conflates reckless boldness with
William Petersen in 1985's To Live and Die in L.A.
a kind of Hollywood-Golden-Age heroism. There are moments where we flirt with the idea that his corruption and self-deception are recent developments. A little after the film opens, Chance’s comparatively calm partner, Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), is killed, two moons away from
retirement, when he tries lone-wolfing it and arresting a slithery counterfeiter named Masters (Willem Dafoe, almost sexily evil) at the latter’s compound. (Hart’s confidence is admirable but ultimately worthless — he’s offed so quickly by the movie’s villains that there isn’t even a race-against-time-style scene where he’s being held up and the situation could turn around.) But by then, Chance has already been soiled. He’s long been extorting sex from a parolee (Darlanne Fluegel); he doesn’t hesitate if he thinks that rules, in a tough-spot scenario, deserve to be bent.
The conceit of To Live and Die in L.A. is that Chance will do anything — and William Friedkin, the co-writer and director of the movie, puffs up that “anything” — to take down Masters. If Chance dies trying, he figures that at least he can say he’s died trying. Chance isn’t content with simply shooting Masters in the head, or something approximately quick and relatively pain-free (for Chance, I mean). He wants a full takedown — a dismantling of Masters’ whole counterfeiting operation. The criminal racket could indeed be taken down “by the books” if Chance tried. But that would probably take longer, and with so many boundaries gone uncrossed as if they were lasers, it’d be no fun for him.
Friedkin makes a spectacle out of Chance’s mania. Some might watch the movie enthralled by the increasing insanity of this locomotive of a narrative and the character who pushes it forward. (To Live and Die in L.A. climaxes in a breakneck car chase down the wrong side of the highway, whose behind-the-scenes planning I’d rather not know anything about.) Others might be more glued to Chance’s psychology, thinking more about what it takes for a person to sink lower and lower than getting a kick out of the action sequences. To Live and Die in L.A. has plenty of them. You could enjoy both the conventional thrills and the psychological messiness, as I did most of the time.
But you can never completely let yourself go when you’re encased in one of the particularly hair-raising sequences. The characters bringing those thrills to the fore are frighteningly rather than cheekily amoral. Chance, along with his subsequent partner, who is so spineless that he actively participates in the revenge for Hart that we’re sure Hart wouldn’t want all that much anyway, made me again ponder, as I'm wont to do, how many hideous things go unchecked in the institutionally long-unfuckwithable law-enforcement system. This is an opera of a movie probably too berserk to take seriously, but still. Thankfully Friedkin, like with 1971’s The French Connection, knows how to build a kind of excitement that isn’t so exciting that it almost redeems its badly behaving characters. It has a cynicism integral to a great neo-noir.
hat To Live and Die in L.A. is a great neo-noir is ironic, considering that the neo-noir Friedkin made five years earlier, Cruising, definitely wasn't considered one, and in addition to being characterized as bad was also
controversial in a reputation-staining way. It’s about a New York City cop named Steve Burns (played by Al Pacino) who goes undercover to help track down a serial killer who has been killing gay men involved with the S&M and leather-bar scenes. All the victims look a lot like him, which is one of the reasons he’s selected for the undertaking.
Burns, new to the job, is initially apprehensive about taking on the task. But since he wants to rise in the ranks and because this case is high profile (it uniformly gets front-page news coverage), he dives deep into it, perusing the clubs and locales the murderer is said to have most often stalked.
The movie isn’t as bad as legend has it and I don’t think its controversies (there were qualms that the movie condemned and stereotyped gay people) is solidly founded. This is a film set inside a niche milieu and it’s portrayed as such. (Though you could understand how activists might be worried about misinterpretation.) This is invoked by the captain who assigns Burns to the case (Paul Sorvino), who notes that the leather scene in which Burns is about to involve himself is a scene rather than a secret universality. I think Cruising positively, if hyperbolically for the screen, shows us people refreshingly unabashed in their sexuality; and one of the most sympathetic and sensitively written
characters in the movie — a struggling writer Burns befriends — is gay. There’s undeniably a shock factor at play, but there isn’t a sense that Friedkin is denouncing or making a to-be-sneered-at spectacle of what we’re seeing.
Surprisingly for a movie partially about a gay subculture that has been directed by and stars straight men and was released in 1980, it isn’t the portrayal of sexuality or this otherworld we're most dissatisfied with. The villain, we understand, has become homicidal in part because of the crushing homophobia instilled in them by society and especially their claustrophobically conservative family —
progressively, the film portrays not homosexuality as an antagonist but rather homophobia. The overarching problem with Cruising more so has to do with how the Burns character is realized. There are so many uncertainties to him — his sexuality, how he’s been affected by being immersed in this subculture, whether (spoiler alert) he actually might be the killer (the film’s never definitive when it comes to that) — that the film loses a key element of its emotional and psychic output. It might have been more interesting a movie if the portrayal of Burns was more direct. But the film is so indefinite in its depiction of him that when the equivocal ending arrives, Cruising reveals itself as less the kind of mystery that leads us to enthusiastic interpretation and more irritation, since Friedkin hints the whole movie that more is to be revealed. It's timorously oblique.
Cruising rises above its bad reputation and is I think a pretty decent milieu thriller (the visuals and scene-setting are convincing and the feature is consistently antsy), but there’s a sense it would’ve affected more if it didn’t leave so much up in the air. Ambiguity can be a good thing for a movie when done right — Friedkin’s own The Exorcist (1973) can attest to that — but when it doesn’t work when deployed, like in the case of Cruising, it can be a rug-puller.
To Live and Die in L.A.: A