Living and Dying in L.A. – 1980s-style

One of my favorite movies from the 1980s that doesn’t have the words “Star Trek” in the title is To Live and Die in L.A. I recently re-watched it – after not having seen it for about 10 or so years – but also read the novel upon which the movie is based, and, to top off the whole experience, I’ve also been listening to the film’s soundtrack rather frequently (although not as frequently as I did back in the ‘80s, when I pretty much wore out my cassette). All of that inspired me to jot down my thoughts on all three of these, in the order in which I originally consumed them.

The movie:

Hey, I live in Croatia, of course I have the local DVD release…

I first saw the movie with a few buddies not long after it was released in late 1985; interestingly enough, although all of us were 17 at the time, we were technically too young to see it, because at the time, Salem (OR) had a city ordinance that raised the minimum age for watching R-rated movies from the national standard of 17 to 18 (that frustrated the hell out pretty much every high school kid in the wider area). Luckily, whoever was working the box office that night (which, if I recall correctly, was actually a school-night) decided to look the other way while selling us our tickets, instead of carding us.

The movie, directed by William Friedkin (best known, I think, for The French Connection), just blew my mind. Up to that point, I hadn’t really seen any noir films, nor had I ever seen Los Angeles portrayed like this in movies or on TV: there were no shots of sun-drenched sandy beaches with bronzed surfers and bikini-clad beauties, or Disneyland, or affluent suburbs with spacious homes surrounded by beautifully landscaped front and back yards. Nope, here we see the seedier parts of the city, its less appealing underbelly: the grimy industrial and warehouse districts, the ratty low-income neighborhoods, the dreary port zone, and the seedy bars and strip joints. It was really my first exposure to in-your-face grim ‘n’ gritty.

The story focuses on a pair of Secret Service agents working in that federal agency’s LA office. Now, it should be noted that the Secret Service doesn’t just protect the US president and other high-profile governmental officials. Its work actually has two components: protective (the black-suited security guards with earbuds and mikes in their sleeves) and investigative. In the latter capacity, the agency investigates fraud by banks and other financial institutions, mail fraud, wire fraud and counterfeiting of US currency – this is because it used to be (until the early 2000s) under the Treasury Department. The dual nature is illustrated by the opening sequence in which a few of the main characters in the film are shown on a protective detail during an event at which then President Reagan is speaking in L.A. However, the primary plot of this movie involves the pursuit of a brilliant and ruthless LA-based counterfeiter named Rick Masters.

The whole investigation, and the action, really gets rolling when Masters and his henchmen brutally kill an agent named Jimmy Hart, just a few days before his retirement, because he was getting too close to blowing the lid on their operations. His young, hot-shot former partner, Dick Chance, does not take this well and redoubles his efforts to bring down Masters, by not only bending but actively breaking the rules. His newly assigned partner, a more by-the-book guy named John Vukovich, gets pulled along for the ride, and by the end of the movie this really has a significant impact on him.

With the possible exception of perennial movie and television character actor Dean Stockwell (who plays a well-to-do and rather slimy criminal attorney), most of the cast were relative unknowns at the time. Agent Chance is played by William Petersen – anyone more accustomed to him as the rather placid Gil Grissom in CSI will find it a bit startling to see him playing a sociopathic loose cannon here. Willem Dafoe brilliantly plays the ruthless counterfeiter Rick Masters – he comes across as a kind of evil David Bowie, and for me the role defined him. Any time I see Dafoe play anything but a vile or crazed bad guy in a movie it seems a bit off to me. Vukovich is played by John Pankow, one of those guys you recognize because he had supporting roles in a bunch of movies and TV shows in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but never know his name. Other notable cast members who got much more popular later are the then youngish John Turturro, playing one of Masters’ former associates who is strong-armed into becoming an informant, and, in a non-speaking bit-part, Jane Leeves – perhaps best known as Daphne Moon in Frasier – who plays the apparent lover of Rick Masters’ exotic dancer mistress (it’s complicated). Also, Iron Man’s dad, Robert Downey Sr., plays the agent in charge of the Secret Service’s LA field office.

The sountrack:

This album cover art is my favorite image related to the movie – far better than the actual theatrical release poster, as seen above on the DVD cover.

The music, all written and performed by the band Wang Chung, was a big part of what made the movie so compelling to me, so soon after I first saw it, I sought out the soundtrack. Before this, all I knew about Wang Chung was that they had a modest success with the single “Dance Hall Days” from a previous album. Here, they put together a mix of songs and instrumental pieces that perfectly capture, but also help create, the specific mood and atmosphere of the entire movie, and it really transcends anything the band did before or after that. (Seriously, it’s hard to believe that this was the same band that, just a little later, released that hokey song “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” – which, as far as I know, was their biggest commercial success).

As I noted in a comment for Greg Hatcher’s 30-day music challenge posts earlier this year, if I have to pick a favorite song, it would be “Wake Up, Stop Dreaming,” but really, every track is great, and they all complement each other perfectly. You can enjoy the album without ever seeing the movie, I think, but seeing the movie helps you appreciate the music even more.

The novel:

The cover to the mass market paperback edition from the late 1980s.

I only quite recently, like this year, finally got around to reading the eponymous novel upon which the movie is based, written by Gerald Petievich. It was first published in 1984, not long before production of the movie actually began. Apparently, Friedkin actually read the novel while it was still in manuscript form; he and Petievich then co-wrote the movie’s screenplay.

The story in the novel differs from the movie in several key ways; the main protagonist is actually Agent Jimmy Hart. As noted, in the movie he’s killed near the beginning, and his death sort of serves as the catalyst for Chance going on a no-holds-barred mission to bust Masters. In the book, Hart is still close to retirement, but he stays on the Masters case until the end. Also, he was the former senior partner to Vukovich rather than Chance, and in the book Vukovich comes to him for advice a few times.

So here, Masters is being pursued, independently, both by the Chance/Vukovich team and Hart. Hart is handling the case solo and operating more or less by the book, while Chance and the often reluctant Vukovich are, as in the movie, not just bending the rules but often breaking the law. In the end, it plays out as a sort of morality tale (again, in stark contrast to the movie, which ends on a rather cynical note – hope that’s not too much of a spoiler).

As is usually the case, the characters are a little more fleshed out in the book than in the movie; for example, if you read any short online biography of the author, it’s pretty easy to see the Vukovich character is loosely based on him (e.g. Serbian ethnic background, raised in southern California, with a father and brother who also worked in law enforcement). Petievich also had a 15-year career in the Secret Service, and was in fact still an active-duty agent when he wrote the book.

The novel is well worth reading if you like crime thrillers; it’s tightly plotted, suspenseful and, given the author’s background, rather authentic. However, if I’m being honest, I have to say that this is one of those rare cases where I like the movie a bit better than the book – although I’ll readily acknowledge that that’s probably due to the fact that the movie had such a powerful effect on me when I first saw it as a teen, and which has held up for me after repeated viewings over the years. But regardless, I highly recommend this entire living-and-dying in LA trifecta – enjoy them in any order.

2 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I missed the movie in theaters (too busy, in college); but, saw it within a couple of years. I used to own the rather rare VHS of it. It took a couple of views to get into the story and characters, as it was pretty dark. The one obvious thing was that it seemed to be aping the style of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, but in the dingier parts of the city. It almost feels like a Mann movie, aided by the fact that Peterson would star in Manhunter, the next year.

    Pankow is probably best known as Ira, on the sitcom Mad About You, with Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. The film also features an early role for John Turturro. Gary Cole (Office Space, Brady Bunch) has a small role, as well.

    Wang Chung was a highly underrated band and the soundtrack proves it. I enjoyed it then; but, didn’t buy it until years later, when I rewatched the film.

    The film didn’t do that spectacular at the box office (made money; just not big money) and became more of a cable staple, where it found its audience. I had the VHS; but, it seemed like it was one that kind of snuck out into the retail market, then disappeared. It used to go for pretty high prices, on eBay, before they finally released it on dvd.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Hm, I never knew the VHS was a rarity; I know that it was available and in video rental stores already in 1986 – before I graduated from high school – because I remember renting it and watching it with a bunch of friends (those of us who had seen it in the theater wanted to convince a few hadn’t how awesome it was).
      I also recall renting it at least twice more in college (in California, late 1980s) and then once again in Croatia in the mid-1990s.

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