There a few things Hollywood loves as much as itself, and while films like La La Land and others concerned with the navel-gazing exercise of making films tend towards the covering the perceived glamor of the place, it’s also an industry that’s happy to cast a rather more jaundiced eye at the greater Los Angeles area. Today, we’re looking at a number of films that show the seedier side of the City of Angels, and if you think that’s a pretty tenuous theme worked around trying to strong-arm Drew into watching To Live and Die In L.A., you are a horrible cynic and, to be fair, quite right.
Despite loving so much of the output of 1970s Hollywood I had, until last week, somehow managed to pull off the amazing double feat of not only not having seen Roman Polanski’s classic Chinatown, but avoiding all knowledge of it, except for its name and its leading man. The upside of that, though, is that I was able to watch it with no preconceptions, no expectations, just fresh eyes and an open mind.
That leading man is Jack Nicholson, in his ascendency, and only one year before his turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would rightly land him an Academy Award. Nicholson plays JJ Gittes, a private investigator in 1930s Los Angeles, who specialises in extra-marital affairs and who is, in marked contrast to the Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes of the classic noirs to which this film owes a debt, pretty financially successful, with a nice suit, a nice office, and a staff.
Like those legendary P.I.s, though, Gittes is still brought low by a dame, though not, at first at least, in the way one might anticipate. Gittes (or Jake, to his friends) is employed by Mrs Mulwray to investigate her cheating husband, the senior engineer for the Los Angeles water department, and find proof of his infidelity. This Jake duly does, and the incriminating photographs find their way into the newspapers, creating a scandal. Shortly thereafter, the unfortunate Mr Mulwray is found dead, apparently having committed suicide.
Nothing is ever so simple in film noir, of course, and Gittes soon learns that Mulwray’s death wasn’t his own choice, nor was “Mrs Mulwray” his wife, something he discovers when the real Mrs Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) turns up at this office and threatens to sue him.
All of this leads Jake into beginning an investigation of what is really happening: to wit, someone is creating, or at least manipulating and worsening, the drought LA is currently in the grips of by dumping large amounts of drinking water into the sea. And why? For tha moneys is why, as it always is. The drought is massively reducing the value of arable land, and it’s being bought up for pennies. But wouldn’t you just know it, the massive new dam that is being proposed as the solution to the drought will direct lots of lovely plant-nurturing water to the farmland, and someone is going to make a killing. Again.
On its release Chinatown was rightly lauded, but incorrectly also referred to by many as a pastiche of the great film noir detective stories of the 1940s. Whether it is the compression of time (we are as far from Chinatown now as Chinatown was from those films when it was released), or whether those critics were simply wrong, Polanski’s film is not a pastiche but a true successor, or perhaps stablemate is a better term, to those classic tales of the hard-boiled, hard-drinking, private dicks. It doesn’t suffer, as could so easily have been the case, from nostalgia or artifice – it’s just a film noir, and could easily have been made in the 40s.
The period detail is exacting, and the fantastic photography has a distinct edge over its monochrome predecessors: the rich, warm, yellow and brown tones throughout really sell the sweltering heat and dryness of the drought-afflicted southern California. Nicholson is superb as the intelligent, well-mannered, wise-cracking and principled (well, he has a code) Jake Gittes: quick-witted and capable, but by no means invulnerable. There is notable support from Faye Dunaway, as the femme fatale who has a far darker and more tragic backstory than you expect, and John Huston (who, of course, directed The Maltese Falcon, one of the all-time greats of the genre), as the seemingly amiable and down-home businessman Noah Cross.
While I would argue that it’s not quite of the quality of the classic stories created by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, Robert Towne’s screenplay (which won an Academy Award, and was also contributed to by the director) is compelling. It may have taken a little while for me to warm to Chinatown, but as the mystery was slowly unravelled I felt myself being drawn further and further in, and becoming ever more engaged.
Polanski’s direction is assured, tightly controlled, and true of vision – that the film lacks the sins of nostalgia, pastiche or satire is due in large part to him. He didn’t create an homage to film noir, he said “this is how a film noir was, is, and should be. Now pay attention and learn.” He even manages not to pull a Tarantino and not nearly ruin his film with his cameo, which is a small but fairly menacing role.
Brilliantly acted, masterfully directed, engaging, intriguing, and, remarkably so given the time at which it was made, post Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, refreshingly unsaturated by violence and guns. It’s probably Polanski’s masterpiece, and assuming you are able to separate the art from the artist then it’s an absolute must-watch.
Mention William Friedkin to a film fan and they will in all likelihood respond first with either “The Exorcist” or “The French Connection”, depending on their personal proclivity. You may even get the odd “Sorcerer” or “Cruising” in there, but certainly their first instinct will be to gravitate toward the director’s 70s output, and deservedly so. There is a less likely answer, however, in “To Live and Die in L.A.”, Friedkin’s oft-forgotten 1985 secret service thriller and a film behind which there is a growing movement for re-assessment.
Now, don’t stop me if you’ve heard any of the following before, because we’ll be here all bloody day, but To Live and Die is the story of an on-the-edge Secret Service agent named Richard Chance (William Petersen) whose partner is murdered just days short of retirement while investigating a talented counterfeiter on his own time (cue Roger Murtaugh’s signature exasperated saxophone riff). Chance vows to do whatever it takes to bring the perpetrator to justice, and for the most part you’d think that would be all there is to know.
His name is Chance.
People tell him he’s crazy.
His partner just got killed ahead of retirement.
His new partner is a total straight-edge.
If William Petersen spent the whole movie in a t-shirt emblazoned with 100 point Impact font reading “I’m a maverick, me” it would probably not look out of place, and it certainly would not put me off watching To Live and Die on endless repeat because it is, quite frankly, the second best movie to come out of Hollywood during the 80s.
In fact To Live and Die is so archly 80s that I suspect the reason it fell off so many people’s radars is that it probably all seemed quite embarrassing the second the clock ticked over to 1990. Now, however, the 80s are apparently cool again and a lot of people seem to be cottoning on to the movie’s strengths, of which there are many.
Petersen’s portrayal of Chance may be shackled on paper at least by the cliche in which it seems initially mired, but beyond that single sentence synopsis with which I opened this ramble he makes a bloody good case for one of the cop thriller genre’s most compelling anti-heroes. In acid wash denim and up-collared leather jacket Chance weaves his way through the L.A. underworld and new wave art scene in pursuit of a gloriously, quietly unhinged Willem Dafoe as Eric Masters, the painter turned counterfeiter whose henchman offed his partner in the opening act. In doing so he leverages informants and contacts whom he is happy to use and abuse for his own satisfaction, both professionally and personally in the case of Darlene Fluegel’s character Ruth; a parolee who Chance is stringing out as an informant and a sexual partner.
Chance’s emotionally driven pursuit of his quarry and increasingly unethical tactics do not sit well with new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow), nor do they lead to your typical Hollywood ending, with our hero’s apparently burgeoning nihilistic bent predictably seeding his downfall. A blistering final act begins with Chance’s assertion that in order to get close to Masters he needs money to pose as a buyer, and that the only way to get that kind of money is to rock up unannounced to a drugs buy and steal it. In doing so Chance and Vukovich unknowingly kidnap an undercover FBI agent who is subsequently killed, precipitating a downward spiral of total fucked-ness and lending us one of cinema’s most criminally forgotten car chase sequences.
To Live and Die in L.A. is a curious beast, at once conforming to genre tropes which were at that point already a couple of decades out of date, while simultaneously riding an art-pop, new wave of experimentalism. It’s a precarious balancing act that works surprisingly well, despite veering wildly from “shove city hall up your ass” tough guy bravado one moment to “setting fire to modern artworks on a veranda just because” pretentiousness the next. In that sense I reckon To Live And Die represents perhaps the purest distillation of 80s aesthetics and attitudes in pop culture, with the added bonus of a bespoke soundtrack courtesy of Wang Chung. And in case you think I’m being facetious when I say that you’re listening to the man who owns not just the soundtrack to this movie but also Everybody Wang Chung Tonight: Wang Chung’s Greatest Hits on vinyl and CD. And iTunes. Listen, Wang Chung sang nonsense lyrics to pretentious synth melodies while wearing cream knitted sweaters and for that reason they are significantly better than any of us.
Punch through the membrane of decade-that-time-forgot cheese (mmmmm, delicious 80s cheese) and you’ll find a surprisingly complex thriller that doesn’t flinch when it needs to bring the tough stuff, nor is afraid to throw a plot curve ball when it matters. A satisfyingly anti-Hollywood climax is pretty much the cherry on top of a delightfully self-indulgent cake of excess from which I am quite happy to serve myself a slice any time. To Live and Die in L.A. is the cinematic gift that keeps on giving.
I went through a bit of a Bret Easton Ellis phase in my younger days, I believe prompted by the adaptation of American Psycho, during which I caught up with the authour terribile‘s debut novel, Less Than Zero. While undeniably powerful stuff, I found it just too willfully tasteless and nihilistic to be remotely believable. Looking back on it from my current state of apathy and cynicism, all hope and idealism having been beaten out of me between the anvil of reality and the hammer of experience, I realise that it was, if anything, too forgiving of its views on the rich and arrogant.
This phase did not extend to viewing 1987’s Less Than Zero, most notable these days for containing one Robert Downey Jr. Just as well, as it’s been adapted out of all recognition to be much more palatable, which might come as a surprise to anyone that’s seen it. Morally lax or desperate as this film’s characters get, at no point does anyone mention a 12 year old sex slave. Nothing’s unfilmable, true, but some things are better off un-filmed.
The basics of the film are easy to relate, at least. Andrew McCarthy’s Clay returns from the East Coast to his Los Angeles home for Christmas, but less to see his family, more his old friends. He’d received a letter from ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz), begging him to come home to talk some sense into former bestie Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.), these two having formed a loose couple since Clay’s departure.
While he’s been away at university, Blair is now a coke-addled model, and after Julian’s business ventures failed, he’s turned to increasing volumes of drugs, estranging himself from his family and getting him in deep debt to former friend and current dealer Rip (James Spader). Despite their best efforts, Julian can’t kick the habit leading to Rip forcing Julian to work the debt off through prostitution, from which Clay tries to extract him.
Along the way, Clay and Blair re-kindle their relationship as they tour the myriad bars and clubs of the eighties scene looking for Julian, filled with the rich and famous pursuing ludicrous hedonism, entirely detached from society.
I suppose, despite all the changes, Less Than Zero captures the essential spirit of the novel, in as much as it’s full of horrible characters being horrible to each other.
As for the changes, the softer treatment for the protagonist, along with the love triangle angle never feels particularly convincing, and the token attempt at pointing out that “drugs are bad, mmkay” could never come across as anything more than hamfistedly over the top.
The main reason this falls flat stems from Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz, both of who you don’t see much of these days because they are awful at this whole “acting” thing. Downey, at least, has the charisma to provoke some interest in his plight, although at this stage of his career it’s not married to the talent and experience he developed in later years, so it’s still hard to call it a “good” performance from him. James Spader is as James Spader does, which is badly.
Perhaps the biggest turn off is the film’s boring moralising, particularly when you’re not on board with it. It treats taking drugs and promiscuity as inherently, obviously morally indefensible, and that does not sit well with me. If you’re not harming anyone, I don’t see why I should be harshing your mellow. For this film, the cause and the effect are inseparable, at which point it’s just an elaborately shot PSA film.
There’s some interest to be had here, I guess, mainly from knowing how the Brat Pack collapsed under the same strains as the characters do here, and in general as a capsule of ludicrous eighties excess, documenting abuses of both substances and fashions.
Not all that much interest, though, and the narrative and characters of the film do not hold up their end of the bargain. In terms of showing another grim side of Los Angeles, as is this podcast episode’s mandate, it’s a success, but that’s the only level on which that term could be applied. Not worth excavating from the vaults.
Written and directed by debutant John Singleton, Boyz n the Hood is the tale of three adolescents growing up to become young men in a neighbourhood of South Central Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1990s. The ‘Boyz’ are half-brothers Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) and Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Ricky and Doughboy live with their mother; Ricky is a promising athlete, but his chances of earning a scholarship are made difficult by his lack of academic prowess and the fact that he already has a child of his own. Doughboy is a recidivist, who spends the time when he isn’t in juvenile detention drinking on the front porch with his friends. Across the street, Tre lives with his fearsomely named father Furious (Laurence Fishburne), though his life is more conventional for his age – trying to do his best in school and trying to do his best with girls.
We meet the boys first as pre-teens, and see Tre fall foul of his mother’s promise to send him to live with his father if he misbehaved at school again. The disciplinarian sets out the rules for his son, but it is clear from the outset that he wants the best for him. After an establishment of the friendships and the nature of the ‘hood, we skip forward seven years, and Tre is now nearing the end of high school. He is still friends with Ricky and Doughboy, and has a job, a girlfriend and, hopefully, a future. The realities of life in the ‘hood will come to affect the three friends in very different ways, though.
Boyz n the Hood can be considered a war movie, with the (largely white) LAPD as the occupying force. Helicopter searchlights and gunfire have become a way of life. So inured to their presence have become the inhabitants of South Central that the regular rattle of weapons fire is an irritant that stops you from doing your homework, and not something to immediately send you diving for cover. But there is certainly still fear, and danger. Plenty of that. And it is through this warzone that Tre, Ricky and Doughboy must try to safely navigate, and avoid the roaming dangers of gangs and perpetual temptations of drugs and violence.
Singleton could easily have taken his story of these young men one of two ways: he could have glamourised the violence, which at the time of its release it was dismissed as doing, by those unwilling to take the time to watch it; the presence of NWA star Ice Cube probably didn’t help that perception, as NWA’s raps, full of righteous anger and polemic as they can be, do often glorify gangster life, and not just on a superficial level. But he didn’t, and the violence is presented as a matter of fact.
Alternatively, he could have made a preachy morality tale, but he avoided doing that also. Laurence Fishburne’s Furious could be seen as the preacher, particularly given that he is the singular father figure, a role conspicuous by its absence in the life of almost every other character in the film, save Tre. But the passionate Furious is also a realist, and simply tries his best to raise his own son and equip him with the tools and knowledge to survive in the world. While clearly he has compassion and concern for Ricky and Doughboy, he feels no responsibility.
By refusing to preach, but also by refusing to accept that his characters are condemned by fate, that they are helpless victims of circumstance, Singleton made a profoundly powerful document. Violence, drugs and gangs are part of these young men’s lives, but they need not be the defining part. In fact, while gang violence is at the heart of the tragedy of the film, for much of the rest life is, for want of a better word, mundane. Or everyday, which is perhaps the better word I am searching for. Because as people, the inhabitants of Crenshaw are little different to people elsewhere: they have the same hopes and dreams, they go to work, do their homework, play with friends, watch TV. Tre doesn’t worry about being shot, he worries about his shirt looking nice so a girl will notice him.
But there is always, in the background, a violent menace, something capable of upending the life of a whole family in moments, and for no reason. Singleton condemns that state of affairs, but also refuses to entirely absolve the community of blame; some of the problems are your own, therefore so too are the solutions. He offers no simple solutions himself, because there are none, but in not portraying the lives of his characters as relative to white people, and by not making simplistic distinctions, he offers the inhabitants of the ‘hood agency, as well as culpability. And without cynicism, too.
This maturity can also be seen in the film’s heart-breaking finale. Other filmmakers would be tempted to focus on the revenge aspect (and Doughboy’s rage-filled retribution is given the time and weight that it deserves), but it’s the moments before and after that are the most powerful. The abject grief of a family torn apart by a violent and senseless crime, and then the next morning. Doughboy may be impulsive, but he’s not stupid, and he has the introspection and thoughtfulness that less-well written characters lack, and would have seen them simply consider Tre’s actions as a betrayal. The characters are very rounded, and Tre and Doughboy’s final conversation is strong stuff; human and touching, even a little hopeful, and leads to the coda about the characters, horrendously inevitable as it may be, feeling like a gut punch.
More than a quarter of a century on, Boyz n the Hood is still deeply resonant and relevant. Singleton’s camera work is assured, and the film is full of attention to detail. He has also coaxed superb, natural performances from his young cast – notably Ice Cube, and I’m not sure that anybody involved, except for the under-used Angela Bassett, has ever done better work. And to think that a film this accomplished came from a 23-year old first time writer and director is simply astonishing.
I was completely unaware until researching this episode that Curtis Hanson had been plying his trade as director since the early 70s, and I’d wager I’m not the only one out there. Some of his earlier works are certainly a little more obscure, but I’m willing to bet that, also like me, you’ve perhaps unknowingly watched one or two of his early 90s efforts such as Bad Influence and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. This seems to be the point at which Hanson found his stride, and it serves as a fitting precursor to perhaps his best known and most well received works, the consecutive triple whammy of L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys and 8 Mile.
The first of those movies is the one that concerns us today, based on James Elroy’s novel, part of his revered L.A. Quartet, and scripted by Brian Helgeland, a screenwriter whose work has varied wildly in quality from the excellent to The Sin Eater AKA The Order.
L.A. Confidential is a tale of murder and deception both within and without the LAPD, set against the backdrop of mid to late 50s Hollywood; surely in the running for the title of most hedonistic time and place in living memory. The power vacuum left by the eventual apprehension of notorious gangster Micky Cohen (see the considerably-less-worthy-but-offset-by-presence-of-Ryan-Gosling Gangster Squad) was undoubtedly going to be filled, but few were probably expecting that elements within the LAPD would be the ones to make the play. As we’ll soon find out, however, nobody is to be trusted, and sometimes the one you trust the least will be the only one you can count on.
A massacre at all-night cafe The Night Owl sets things in motion here, with a shotgun wielding gang perpetrating what at first appears to be a violent robbery turned tragedy. A group of young black men are promptly fingered for the deed, and after breaking out of police custody their own lives are brought to an equally brutal end by the LAPD. It soon becomes apparent, however, that this narrative is just a little too neat, and that officers within the force, some of them disturbingly high ranking, may actually be behind what turns out to have been not a robbery, but a heroin deal gone sour.
Unravelling this mess are a trio of wildly divergent characters within the LAPD. Guy Pearce is Ed Exley, a junior officer with unswerving moral conviction and a burning desire to best his father’s record of having reached Detective Sergeant by the age of 33. Exley has few fans within the force, with a reputation for unflinching honesty that understandably causes issues for some of his less ethical colleagues. Kevin Spacey portrays Jack Vincennes, a showboater who loves the Hollywood glamour afforded him by his role as technical advisor to the popular TV show Badge of Honour, and whose relationship with Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), editor of salubrious LA gossip magazine Hush-Hush places him very much at odds with Exley.
Likewise, but for very different reasons, our unlikely trio is rounded out by Bud White (Russell Crowe), a boiling vein of testosterone with brass knuckles, a hatred of wife beaters and a dead partner at the Night Owl whom Exley set up for a fall just hours before. A web so tangled as the events at the Night Owl is going to need three sets of hands to unravel, but when the men those hands belong to have at best disdain for each other, at worst an open, violent hatred, it’s going to be a miracle if anyone survives in order to get to the bottom of it.
What starts out as a fairly routine period glamour piece that seems to want to evangelise as much as stylise its setting and central characters does in fact develop into something all the more satisfying for each layer of Hollywood veneer it gradually strips away. In exposing the terrible human flaws of greed, vanity and corruption that lay beneath the surface of pretty much anything built on money, Hanson and Helgeland turn what could have been an utterly shallow exercise in style and set dressing (again, see Gangster Squad) into something altogether more satisfying. In refusing to concede to any notions of casual redemption, L.A. Confidential goes about its business in a way that is more about the cooperation of grudging necessity, with those who make it to the end vindicated but quite literally broken.
It’s a refreshing change to the usual tale of derring do and guns-a-blazing macho antics one might otherwise expect (agaaaain, see Gangster Squad), and it is aided no end by a main cast composed entirely of stars in the ascendant, backed up by fantastic supporting turns from DeVito, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger and Ron Rifkin; hell, when you have David Strathairn as a side character knocking about in a smoking jacket you have to be on to a winner. Basinger in particular deserves attention for a performance that evades stereotype almost against the laws of physics, turning in a character as complex as any of her male counterparts in a movie dominated by testosterone, though the lack of overt showboating by any of the male leads is noteworthy in itself.
Surprisingly fresh now as it was 20 years ago, L.A. Confidential remains a standout in the genre and is very much worth a revisit.
Terence Stamp’s Wilson, a walking caricature of an East End gangster is released from a stretch at Her Majesties pleasure and immediately hops on a plane to L.A. to investigate the death of his daughter, Jenny (Melissa George). It’s been ruled an accidental death in a car crash, but Wilson thinks foul play is afoot.
Given the lay of the land by two of Jenny’s friends, Eduardo (Luis Guzman) and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), both of whom pass Wilson’s instinct based lie-detector test, his suspicion falls on the suspiciously named Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), suspicious record producer and suspiciously Jenny’s ex-boyfriend.
Rightly so, as it happens, as we find out over the course of the piece that Valentine has links to drug trafficking, with Wilson pulling on these threads, and violently working his way through the lower level goons as he searches for some proof of Valentine’s guilt. The police seem to view this as an opportunity to rid themselves of some criminals and stay on the sidelines, so Valentine’s head of security Avery (Barry Newman) hires a hitman, Stacy (Nicky Katt) to take care of Wilson, all this leading to an appropriately bloody resolution.
I like The Limey a lot more than I’ll be able to adequately explain, but I suppose I ought to give it a shot. It’s a strange film on a few levels, and it’s a credit to all involved that it hangs together this well.
To whit, narratively, there’s not a great deal to the film, and the driving force of the story is pretty bare bones. Sometimes it feels like if you took out most of the scenes that are, at heart, a reason to have Americans confused by cockney rhyming slang, this film would be half an hour long. Even so, had this been approached conventionally by the recently de-retired Steven Soderbergh, well, there’s enough talent in front of the camera that I’m sure it would be watchable but unremarkable.
However, it’s far from conventional, and is surely the most melancholic, wistful roaring rampages of revenge committed to film. With frequent cuts to footage from one of Stamp’s earliest films, along with his regretful narrative and an editing style that’s purposefully disorienting your sense of time and, to a lesser degree, place, it’s bringing to the fore a character who’s spending some time taking stock of his life.
Which contrasts quite sharply to the bulk to the rest of the film, where Wilson’s has a clarity of purpose and a drive that’s quite something to behold. It may well be Stamp’s finest hour, inhabiting a powerful character that’s much more empathetic and engaging than the stock character he may appear to be on first glance. Stamp may forever be remembered as General Zod, but Wilson’s more deserving of the honour.
There’s almost as interesting a character on the other side of the coin, with Peter Fonda’s dawning realisation that he has gone from “in over his head” to “in immediate existential danger” over the piece being a joy to watch. It’s a nice inversion, with Wilson being out of his comfort zone geographically, but well versed in the work at hand, and Valentine being quite the opposite.
The rest of the supporting cast do well, particularly Guzmán and Warren, but it’s hard not to be overshadowed by Stamp given that the spotlight is, rightly, on him for the bulk of the film. It’s in the title, after all.
I suppose, in the final analysis, I like The Limey because it’s a thriller that’s taking a very different, possibly unique, approach to the way it tells its story – different enough to be interesting while familiar enough to maintain the genre’s appeal. It’s a mystery to me why this didn’t go over with the mass market on release – I suppose it was perceived as too arty, but it very much isn’t. If, somehow, you’ve missed this, it’s worth putting pretty high up on your watch list.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the 10th with a look at Michael Mann’s Heat and L.A. Takedown, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.