The Best Movie You Never Saw: To Live and Die in L.A

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A!

THE STORY: A secret service agent (William Petersen) becomes obsessed with avenging his partner’s death at the hands of a ruthless counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe), no matter what the cost – even as the line between criminal and cop becomes blurred.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Stockwell, John Pankow. Music by Wang Chung. Directed by William Friedkin.

THE HISTORY: TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A was director William Friedkin’s long-awaited return to the cop genre. In the years following THE FRENCH CONNECTION, he had his ups and downs, with THE EXORCIST becoming one of the biggest hits ever (at that point) but then the great SORCERER crashing and burning at the box office, helped in no small part by the fact that it opened the week after a little movie called STAR WARS. His follow-up, THE BRINKS’ JOB, was considered a minor effort, and CRUSING, another cop movie, was blasted as homophobic by critics, although Friedkin himself said that was never the intention. You can see how dire things were for Friedkin at the time by noticing that his follow-up to CRUSING was a bad Chevy Chase comedy, DEAL OF THE CENTURY.

“Friedkin had said to me in that initial conversation that he didn’t want me to write a song called “To Live and Die in L.A.”, that he wanted a soundtrack. And he was quite specific about that. So I sort of wrote the song, and I find that when you are working with talented people, do the opposite of what they say. (laughs) It’s a good way to go.” – Wang Chung’s Jack Hues – Golden Age of Music Videos Interview 

Thus, Friedkin put it all onscreen in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. Working within the confines of a limited budget, he cast the film with a totally unknown leading man, William Petersen, put Willem Dafoe in as the baddie, and hired synth pop band Wang Chung to do the score. Pretty bold for what was seen as a comeback movie. Overall, critical reaction was muted, with many noting similarities between it and “Miami Vice”, although Roger Ebert loved it. It did OK at the box office, making $17 million, well over its budget, but it wasn’t anywhere near as big as it should have been.

WHY IT'S GREAT: TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A is one of the all-time great cop films. Whatever pre-conceptions you have of the genre going in, Friedkin’s going to turn them around. William Petersen’s Secret Service agent seems like a stylish hero in the vein of Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett, but under his cool exterior beats a heart of stone, with him ruthlessly exploiting everyone that crosses his path, from his love interest/informant (Darlene Fluegel) to his rookie partner (John Pankow). He may say he’s trying to avenge his partner’s death, but it’s really just a chance for him to chase a rush, all of which makes him utterly unique as a lead. And it's set at Christmas – although you'd never know it if it wasn't for the dates ticking by on-screen (there are no decorations anywhere in the background).

Technically, the film is impeccable, with high-gloss lensing by Robby Muller, chic eighties production design, and that Wang Chung score really works well. All together it adds up to one of the sharpest thrillers of its era, and one that I never get tired of watching. Everyone is so damn good, from Pankow as the increasingly panicked partner, to Dafoe as the cold-blooded (but not psychotic) baddie, to Dean Stockwell as without a doubt the smartest guy in the flick – the well-connected lawyer that’s got everyone owing him big-time.

BEST SCENE: Friedkin went into TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A wanting to top his FRENCH CONNECTION car chase, and he pulled it off – big-time. Heck, the first half of this chase is arguably better, but it just gets wilder as more and more adversaries pile-in, and Petersen has to turn into oncoming L.A traffic. Arguably the best thing about it are the shots of Pankow freaking out in the back-seat.

“None of the chase scenes that I did over the course of three films had any opticals. We had to do all of that physically. The first thing you have to do is see it in your mind's eye. You have to envision it. Imagine someone knitting a sweater or a scarf. They either have a pattern in front of them, or they see a pattern in their mind's eye. Then it's one stitch at a time. That's what shooting a chase is like. One shot at a time. You set it up with a stunt coordinator. You discuss exactly what you want to see and how. You rehearse it in slow motion. Then you do it one shot at a time.” – William FriedkinMovieweb Interview 

SEE IT: TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A just got re-released on a special features laden Blu-ray by Shout Factory.

PARTING SHOT: If you haven’t watched TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A, you’re missing one of the seminal movies of its era, even if it was never considered that when it first came out. Its cult keeps growing, and there’s a reason – it’s the best.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.