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To Live and Die in L.A. : Neo-Noir Was the Case

William Friedkin's 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A. is not only a terrific crime film but a true neo-noir film. The film contains noir stylistic elements such as shadows and symbols like Venetian blinds; it features fatal women and fatal men; and most of all, it features the city as spectacle, with Los Angeles seen as a corrupting labyrinth from which there is no escape.

The 1980's saw the return of noir.  Labeled neo-noir, Body Heat was seen as the film that heralded noir's return, but with new elements (however as Foster Hirsh argues in Lost Highways and Detours, the differentiating elements of neo-noir are difficult to pin down).  While some critics argue that noir went dormant after 1959's Touch of Evil, one can argue that 1960's films such as Harper, The Manchurian Candidate, Marlowe, and Point Blank; and 1970's films such as The Parallax View, The Conversation, Chinatown, and Taxi Driver prove otherwise.  In any event, many critics point to the 1980's as when noir returned in force, beginning with the 1981 film Body Heat.  If Body Heat began neo-noir, L.A. showed just how much the genre had to offer.

Film noir incorporates elements such as a wrong turn leading a good person somewhere they normally wouldn't go, usually leading to ruin or destruction.  The city is often a vital element of noir with the city often being a corrupting force full of dangerous twists and turns.  The character of the fatal woman or fatal man is seen, someone who leads a character to destruction. Finally, there are visual elements such as shadows, Venetian blinds, and rain.

Released in 1985 to modest commercial but good critical success, L.A. is frequently listed as a crime film (which it is) but not as a noir film.  Our text lists many neo-noir titles but L.A. is not among them.  Neither allmovie.com nor the Internet Movie Database list it as neo-noir.  However, a close examination of L.A. supports the idea that it is not only neo-noir but one of the genre's strongest examples.

A brief summary of the film is necessary to understand its noir elements and why L.A. qualifies as neo-noir.  The film deals with Treasury agent Richard Chance who pursues counterfeiter Eric Masters.  Chance is out for revenge after Masters kills his partner Jimmy Hart.  Chance's new partner John Vukovich is slowly corrupted by Chance as Chance will do whatever is necessary, illegal or legal, to apprehend Masters.  Both Masters and Chance destroy the people around them, ultimately dying due to their self-destructive personas.

Agent John Vukovich (John Pankow) on stakeout.  The heavy rain here foreshadows the destruction that is about to unfold.
This long shot captures Vukovich's view as he stakes out the scene.  The long shot is reminiscent of Hitchcock's use of long shots in Rear Window to capture L.B. Jeffries spying on his neighbors.
Fatal woman Bianca leads corrupt attorney Max Waxman to his destruction.  Note the classic noir symbol of the Venetian blind, the heavy use of shadow, and the neon that casts a dirty light on the proceedings.
L.A. incorporates many traditional noir visual elements, one of which is rain.  Heavy rain is falling during Chance and Vukovich's stake out of a suspect's home.  Like many other noir films, the rain here foreshadows death.   Here, the rain takes place before Masters confronts crooked attorney Max Waxman about stolen money, an encounter that ends in Waxman's death.  This particular scene features femme fatale Bianca setting Waxman up in true fatal woman tradition.

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.
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