Criminal Element

My comparison of Michael Mann and William Friedkin, and details on their battle for the heart of the gritty crime film in the ’80s, is up at Criminal Element.

Two of my favorite films: To Live and Die in L.A. and Thief, compared and dissected for your obsessive internet reading pleasure.


Friedkin vs. Mann in the 80’s

It looks like William Friedkin and Michael Mann had a little tiff in the ’80s. After the gritty crime thriller The French Connection, Friedkin made an aimless remake of Wages of Fear called Sorcerer, the daring but squirm-inducing flick Cruising, where Pacino goes undercover in the gay BDSM scene, and then the disastrous arms dealer comedy The Deal of the Century. He needed something to get him back in his element, and ex-Secret Service agent Gerard Petievich’s thrilling novel Money Men was just the ticket. Retitled as To Live and Die in L.A., which would be incredibly apt once viewed, he made an ’80s crime classic that may not top the tale of Popeye Doyle, but it comes close, and gives us one of cinema’s unforgettable car chases.
Michael Mann was elbow deep in “Miami Vice” while this was made, and actually tried to sue Friedkin for plagiarism over this film; the script differs greatly from the novel and the colorful style is certainly influenced by the popular TV series. He lost, but he got his revenge by beating Friedkin out for the right to direct Thomas Harris’s excellent serial killer novel Red Dragon, which became Manhunter. William Petersen would get his start as a bartender in Mann’s debut, Thief (full review) and then as Chance in To Live and Die in L.A.; Mann got him back for Will Graham in Manhunter, which is perhaps his best role. Now he’s a star of “CSI,” but he had a great start with a pair of the best crime thrillers of the ’80s.

L.A. begins much like Thief, showing us the details of counterfeiting as a paper man named Masters (Willem Dafoe) makes counterfeit plates and then bills from them. He’s working out in the desert and before he can destroy all his evidence, he finds a Secret Service man digging through his dumpster and executes him brutally. Shotguns to the face. Later when the man’s partner- Chance- follows his leads, they find the body in the dumpster. He wants revenge, of course; Masters has evaded the law for years, operates boldly in plain sight, and is a high profile target. Drives a black Ferrari and flaunts his money and flouts the law. He’s a walking middle finger to the Secret Service. Willem Dafoe has always played an excellent villain and this is no exception. Chance gets partnered with the more straight-laced Vukovich (John Pankow), and as the saying goes, all it takes is one bad apple.

“Let me tell you something, amigo. I’m gonna bag Masters, and I don’t give a shit how I do it.”
Chance, however, is a man who’ll do anything for his job. He’s sleeping with an informant; he takes an informer (John Turturro) out of prison to lean on him, and loses him.When his boss won’t get them $30,000 in front money to put a sting on Masters, he decides to rob another crook to get it. And when he does, all hell breaks loose- leading to a chase that begins in a truck and warehouse district full of forklifts, goes alongside a diesel train, into the concrete culverts of the L.A. River, and finally, and infamously, the wrong way down a freeway. They get their money. And the next day, they find out they hit an undercover FBI Agent. Oops.
Friedkin took a lot of pages from Mann’s playbook for this movie. He used contemporary rock band Wang Chung for the soundtrack, which suits the film and era well. The song “Dance Hall Days” originates here. He used real counterfeiters as consultants, and the actors were concerned they’d be arrested once the opening scene was made public. Author Gerry Petievich has a cameo as an agent, and the film lusts over the mechanics of the criminal enterprise. Willem Dafoe’s characterization of Masters resembles a Mann protagonist like James Caan in Thief, or Neil Cauley in Heat; a man driven by perfection of his work, with rigid codes. Except Friedkin leaves things too vague with his characters. Perhaps as residue from Cruising, people are owned by other people; Masters gifts a girl named Serena to his consort, Bianca; Chance may be sleeping with his informant Ruthie, but there is no love. The relationship is purely one of power; she informs, sleeps with him, and can operate without interference from the law. When Vukovich assumes the role of Chance, he tells her that he’s essentially her new owner. “You’re working for me, now.”
John Pankow’s performance as Vukovich is oft overlooked, but I found it more interesting than Petersen’s emotional live wire as Chance. Oh, he’s well played and very memorable, it’s just a character type we’ve seen before- in both Friedkin and Mann’s films. He brings great energy to it, and we never know just how far he’ll go. For example, Vincent Hanna (Pacino) in Heat is bombastic, but we know he won’t break the law to get Cauley. Bend it, sure. Ignore his family, definitely. Chance, on the other hand, is capable of anything, and they don’t try to sugar coat it or make him likeable. Vukovich is what grounds us. He freaks out. He’s panicking in the back seat as Chance barrels the wrong way down the freeway, looking like a jonesing cokehead racing toward his man. We get to see him worn down both by the invincibility of the criminal targets and Chance’s disregard for the rules, as he slowly sees what made his new partner that way.

Pankow has an innocence to him, but by the end, he’s had it burned out of him. And we know why. We’ve gone through hell with him, and can accept how he’s changed. That’s something I haven’t seen in a Mann film. His men are unwavering, and often die for it. I’ve always felt that Mann’s world was a noir fantasy. As much as I love his films, they are essentially Westerns modernized and given a biting film noir edge. We have the lone killer, the hero with his code, which can be his salvation or his undoing. Friedkin, on the other hand, makes tragic heroes out of his driven men. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, instead of behind cold eyes. Friedkin’s films have a dirty reality behind them that makes them interesting vicarious interludes, but you wouldn’t want to live there; Mann brings such style and glamour to his tales that we like to think we could swim along his sharks, when we’d be cut to pieces. They are quite alike and quite different, and two of my favorite film makers.