William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) debuts on Blu-Ray this week, and I hope more people start give it a chance. It really deserves to be ranked as an American classic, alongside Friedkin's The French Connection and The Exorcist. Friedkin is one of my favorite directors, though a deeper appreciation of his work comes when you hear him speak, either in person or on his DVD commentary tracks. He's deeply intelligent and an incredible storyteller. He's also a survivor of early success in a time of great creative output in Hollywood. He has lived life and knows a little something about it. He began as a documentary filmmaker and on television, and he's a meticulous researcher. The main attribute to all his films is the abundance of rich details. But one thing Friedkin knows -- and it's perhaps the main reason he switched from non-fiction to feature films -- is that, no matter how much research one does, nothing is ever known for sure.
And so it follows, perhaps ironically, that he has directed three of the finest car chase sequences in the history of film. He understands that the muscle of a car chase is in the details, in establishing the place and time, and elements like space and atmosphere. But he also understands that the heart of a chase is in the unknowable factors; how on earth is something this screwy going to turn out? In The French Connection (1971), the bad guy tries to escape in an elevated train, while the cops chase him in their car below. In Jade (1995), the hero goes on a car chase that unfortunately detours into San Francisco's Chinatown, which is a crowded street on any normal day, but on this day there is also a parade.
But To Live and Die in L.A. has a doozy. Two undercover Secret Service agents (William Petersen and John Pankow) stage a robbery, and find themselves on the run from a hoard of angry counterfeiters. The only way to escape is to drive past a "do not enter" sign, up an off ramp, and past five lanes of speeding traffic, driving the wrong way. Friedkin handles the chase with more realism than flash, and it's all the more harrowing for his efforts. Check out the chase below; hopefully watching it will bring more viewers to the entire, underrated movie, as well as to more of Friedkin's films. (Note: This is "Part 2" of the sequence, which contains the actual chase. "Part 1" is also available, with the details leading up to the chase.)