The Naked City
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring William Peterson, Willem Dafoe, Debra Feuer
Released November 1st, 1985
Based on novel of the same name by Gerald Petievich, who co-wrote the screenplay with director William Friedkin, To Live and Die in L.A. is a film that contains a myriad of cop cliches. A cop three days from retirement unironically says “I’m getting too old for this” and describes his young partner as a “hot shot.” Though the film was made before things like these were fully cemented as cliches, their inclusion still provides a few eye-rolling cringy moments.
The film presents a vision of a beautiful, seedy town full of beautiful, seedy people. Richard Chance (William Peterson) is a secret service agent investigating money fraud, hot on the trail of Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). Masters is an artistic painter who also counterfeits money, painstakingly painting the bills by hand. Dafoe, looking downright gorgeous, creates a villain who is menacing and mesmerizing.
As Agent Chance, William Peterson is electric. His tense performance predicts future depictions of out-of-control law enforcement, from Bad Lieutenant to The Departed. There are also shades of Training Day as he is partnered with a rookie officer who rightfully questions his methods. The supporting cast is strong, featuring Jane Leaves, Dean Stockwell, and John Turturro. The score, composed by Wang Chung, may sound too synth heavy and dated for contemporary viewers, but undoubtedly felt fresh at the time.
The Kino Lorber release boasts an impressive new transfer; a High-Definition master from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative. Cinematographer Robby Müller’s beautiful shots of a neon Los Angeles sky have never looked more vivid. The disc includes a number of special features (most of which appear to originate with Arrow’s 2016 overseas Blu-ray edition), including interviews with William Peterson and Debra Feuer, composers Wang Chung, a featurette on the stunts, the theatrical trailer, and a documentary about the making of the film, titled Counterfeit World. Also included is a deleted scene that Friedkin says he should have left in the film, and an alternate ending that I’m very happy didn’t end up being used.
For those who’ve yet to hear it from its inclusion on previous home video incarnations of this film, the audio commentary by director Friedkin is worth the price of the disc. His legendary candor is on display as he discusses the making of To Live and Die in L.A. He says he told Wang Chung not to write a song with lyrics referencing the film’s title, but they did anyway, and he liked it so much he ended up using it over the movie’s opening credits. He talks about his love for the music of Stravinsky, saying he tries to bring that unpredictable element to his work. On the film’s epic wrong-way car chase, he says he wanted it to feel Kafkaesque. He says he doesn’t do storyboards, preferring to find the film in the editing room. And most interestingly, he tells a story about the United States Treasury Department investigating the production, due to counterfeit money being manufactured for the film.
To Live and Die in L.A. is packed with interesting visuals, including a sequence at a Kabuki show, and a somewhat surprising amount of male and female nudity throughout. Through perfect pacing, director William Friedkin makes a simple story far more gripping than it otherwise might have been. While not top tier in the director’s filmography, this stylish, atmospheric crime thriller is very much worth watching.