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Copyright 2014-2015 by Dr. Mike Rickard
To Live and Die in L.A.: Neo-Noir Was the Case
The ultimate example of the film's use of winding roads is the chase scene involving Chance and Vukovich fleeing from unknown assailants. The two Treasury agents have just robbed a courier (who they believe is a criminal but who turns out to be an undercover FBI agent). When they are shot at, they race through the city, attempting to escape their unknown pursuers. The chase takes them through narrow streets of a business district with delivery trucks blocking their path. Every time the agents think they have escaped, a new set of pursuers shows up. The chase take alongside a train and then through a culvert in the Los Angeles River. When their car is surrounded, Chance decides to escape by driving down the wrong end of a highway (a magnificent scene that Friedkin shot with the proviso that the scene would outdo the classic car chase scene from his film The French Connection or he would scrap it). The agents escape, and the scene is symbolic of the twists and turns their investigation takes them on as well as representative of how the wrong path they are on.
The film's epic chase scene features Chance and Vukovich being pursued by unknowns (actually federal agents). The chase is a wild ride through Los Angeles, both on the streets and off the streets.
Chance and Vukovich find that the twisted and winding path they are on has no escape.
A symbolic warning for the film's protagonists that their methods of pursuing Masters are wrong. Although Chance and Vukovich find temporary relief, the road ultimately leads to destruction-physical destruction for Chance and moral destruction for Vukovich.
There is further support for L.A. being noir if one agrees with Foster Hirsch that "Indeed for a policier to qualify as legitimately noir, the cop must be attracted to or in some way be complicit with the cry of the city at night. If he remains an observer who is not innocent of any transgression, the film is a crime movie that has not earned its stripes" (157). As we shall see, the film's protagonist, Treasury agent Richard Chance discards the law in his pursuit of counterfeiter Eric Masters.
The film has a strong villain and a fatal man with counterfeiter Eric Masters (played superbly by Willem Dafoe in one of his earlier roles). Like Harry Fabian in The Night and the City, Masters is a charismatic, good looking man who has no scruples and can manipulate people around him. A true fatal man, Masters brings death to people who cross his path. Masters murders a Treasury agent who stakes out his lair as well as an attorney who scams him. Like Scarlet Street, he has a female subordinate who helps him with his crimes. In the spirit of strong femme fatales like Matty Walker in Body Heat, Masters' partner Bianca is a survivor and she ultimately eludes the law, with the assumption that she has taken Masters' remaining assets after his death.
Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) is a complex character. A counterfeiter, he uses his illicit gains to finance his paintings which he then burns. Masters is self-destructive just like his parallel character Richard Chance.
Masters' lover Bianca Torres (Debra Feuer) has the look of a classic fatal woman but in the mold of post-feminist characters, she is portrayed as every bit the equal of Masters (and arguably his superior as she survives the film's events).
The film's protagonist Richard Chance is a fatal man himself. Unlike the fatal man Johnny Prince in Scarlet Street who is malicious, Chance is reminiscent of fatal woman Sue Harvey in Detour, a woman whose good intentions lead to her boyfriend's ruin. It is established early on that Chance is a free-spirited individual who does things his own ways. His long-time partner Jimmy Hart warns him he will never live to retirement because of his recklessness, a fact Chance seems relegated to. Chance is a thrill-seeker, as seen by his hobby of base-jumping. Like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Chance seems to be predisposed to stepping over the line, given the right circumstances. When Masters murders his partner, that is all the push he needs.
Chance slowly corrupts his straight-laced partner John Vukovich as the film progresses. Initially, Vukovich is passive in covering up for Chance in stealing evidence from a crime scene but he slides down a slippery slope as he helps Chance to rob a courier (who is actually an undercover agent). By the end of the film, Vukovich has taken on Chance's identity, with him telling Chance's informant Ruth that she works for him now. Looking at the film's events, there is strong evidence that Chance leads Vukovich to destruction. Although Vukovich survives the film physically, he is spiritually destroyed, taking on Chance's amoral nature, and in effect, transforming into Chance.
Another noir element is the city. In The Dark Side of the Screen Forest Hirsch states that, "The city as a cradle of crime of cauldron of negative energy is the inevitable setting for film noir" (83), in this case showing that L.A.'s use of the city is further evidence of the film's noir status. The city of Los Angeles has been a favorite locale for noir films ranging from early noir (The Big Sleep) to early neo-noir (Chinatown). Here, the city is full of corruption with corrupt attorneys like Waxman and the aptly named Grimes, helping criminal mastermind Eric Masters to work his counterfeiting operation. It is arguable that conventional law enforcement methods cannot overcome crime so Chance (and later Vukovich) must step outside of the law to stop criminals.
L.A. like some of the realistic noir films of the 1950's steps out of the studio to show the city as a living and breathing character. Scenes take place in and around the city. Friedkin chose to shoot the film on location and eschewed studios for interior shots, again using location shooting whenever possible. The result is a film that captures the sun-ravaged, gritty streets of Los Angeles, an intertextual reminder that the city's corrupt nature has not changed since Chinatown.
William Friedkin shot the film on location in Los Angeles (and the outlying region), capturing the city in its sunbaked sordidness. The city as spectacle is one of the film's strongest noir elements.
One of the film's strengths in its depiction of the city is that Friedkin employs a variety of locations in shooting the film. The film's epic chase scene takes place not only in the city streets but anywhere a car can go. This symbolizes how Chance will take whatever path is necessary to get Eric Masters.
Friedkin relies on red gel in several scenes in order to create a hellish atmosphere. Friedkin also uses music and the sound of heavy wind to create an almost alien vibe in the picture. The film could be just as well be located somewhere on Mars as in Los Angeles.
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