Two of the best directors for crime fans are William Friedkin and Michael Mann. Hollywood in the ’8os wasn’t big enough for the both of them. Between them, they brough us what would be (in my arrogant opinion) the two best crime films of the ’80s: Michael Mann’s Thief, and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.
Coming off the success of his gritty crime classic, The French Connection, Friedkin could do no wrong. He remade Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fatalistic Wages of Fear as a crime film called Sorcerer, and followed by sending Al Pacino deep into Greenwich Village’s gay bondage scene with the daring undercover procedural, Cruising. Then he made a rare misstep, with the disastrous arms dealer comedy, The Deal of the Century. (Arms dealing is a subject we couldn’t laugh about until recently, with Lord of War.)
Friedkin needed to get back in his element to recapture his mojo, and Money Men, a thriller by ex-Secret Service agent Gerard Petievich was just the ticket. Retitled To Live and Die in L.A., it is arguably the best crime film of the ’80s. In my opinion, the toss up is between it and Michael Mann’s Thief. What is not arguable is that L.A. contains one of cinema’s most unforgettable car chases. Friedkin topped Bullitt with The French Connection, and here he tops himself.
Michael Mann had his own missteps as a filmmaker. He blasted onto the scene with Thief, starring James Caan as an expert jewel burglar. Mann followed with a strange and altered adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep, which was both a critical and financial disaster. He moved to television, creating the memorable ’50s-era series Crime Story, and then the slick undercover series Miami Vice, which changed what we thought a crime and police drama could do.
The script of To Live and Die in L.A differs greatly from the novel. Its grit and neon mirrors that of Miami Vice so closely that Mann sued Friedkin for plagiarism. He lost, but got his revenge by beating Friedkin out for the rights to direct Thomas Harris’s groundbreaking serial killer novel, Red Dragon, which was renamed Manhunter. It also seems as if the directors fought over actor William Petersen, who stars as Chance in To Live and Die in L.A. Petersen got his start as a bartender in Thief, then starred as Chance in L.A, and then Mann got him back to play Will Graham in Manhunter. He’s now well known for playing Gil Grissom on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, but he got his start as a rag doll pulled back and forth by two great directors.
A Tale of Two Movies…
Thief and To Live and Die in L.A. have very different plots, but are alike in many ways. They both begin by showing us the tools of the criminal trade. In Thief, James Caan breaks into a safe to steal diamonds, and the camera zooms in on every detail, making us complicit in the crime. To Live and Die in L.A. shows us a counterfeiter named Masters (played by Willem Dafoe) making counterfeit plates and then bills from them. Apparently this was done in such an authentic fashion that the crew was concerned that they would be arrested once U.S. Treasury agents saw the opening credits.
Masters is a Miami Vice style villain. A high profile target and a professional who protects himself with cold precision. He drives a black Ferrari, flaunting his money and flouting the law. He’s a walking middle finger to the Secret Service, and when Chance’s partner stumbles upon him destroying evidence, he executes him with shotguns to the face. Chance wants revenge, and his new, straight-laced partner is named Vukovich (played by John Pankow).
Masters will remind you of James Caan’s Frank, and other Mann criminals from classics like Heat. And Chance, like the cops on Miami Vice, will do anything for his job. He’s sleeping with his informant, and treats her like property; he takes a crook out of prison to lean on him, and loses him. When his boss won’t give him $30,000 in front money to put a sting on Masters, he robs another crook to get it. And when he does, all hell breaks loose—leading to the aforementioned chase. It begins in a warehouse district full of forklifts, goes alongside a diesel train, barrels into the concrete culverts of the L.A. River, and finally, infamously, barrels the wrong way down a freeway.
Thief is also about cops and robbers, but the focus is on Frank. It is partly based on The Home Invaders: The Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Chicago jewel thief Frank Hohimer. “Frank” was the pen name of real-life crook Jean Seybold, who served as a consultant on the set. The book is set in the ’50s and ’60s, but the movie modernizes the story and the criminal techniques. Mann also changed Frank’s modus operandi; instead of a home invader stealing rich women’s jewelry collections, he strikes jewel distribution houses. A wise choice, for it anonymizes the victim and makes it easier for us to like Frank. In the book, his method is much simpler: holding homeowners at gunpoint and demanding the combination to their safe. The author was long suspected of taking part in the murder of Valerie Percy, daughter of an Illinois senator. Not quite as glamorous.
Breaking All the Rules or Borrowing the Same Playbook?
Friedkin took a lot of pages from Mann’s playbook for his 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. Author Gerry Petievich has a cameo as an agent, and the film lusts over the mechanics of the criminal enterprise. Masters is a man driven by perfection of his work, with rigid codes. But Friedkin’s characters are darker, and less glamorous than Mann makes his criminals. People are owned by other people; Masters gifts a woman named Serena to his consort, Bianca; Chance may be sleeping with his informant, but the relationship is purely one of power. When his partner Vukovich takes over, he tells the informant that he owns her now.
Mann’s story is much more polished, but intense. Frank is a freelancer, a state-raised juvenile who grew up in the system, with no attachments except his mentor, an old crook named Okie (played by Willie Nelson). Okie is old and sick; Frank would like to get him sprung. He hooks up with Jesse (Tuesday Weld) and they want to adopt a child, but with Frank’s record, it is impossible. He has a partner, played by James Belushi, who he treats like a son. His attachments have made him weak. Mann would distill this in his later masterpiece, Heat, down to the line, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner,” but it begins here, and never more clearly. Frank is approached by a local mobster named Leo, to come under his protection, and because he wants these things, he lets himself believe he can still be his own man.
Working for Leo, everything is smoothed out. The crooked cops stop bothering him. The adoption goes through. But it all sours when Okie dies before he can be lawyered out of prison. Frank does one big job for Leo, and then tells him it is over. And we all know how well that will go. The centerpiece of the film is this big job, the West Coast heist, based on a real theft pulled by another of the film’s consultants, Joe Santucci. The planning takes weeks, beginning with procuring the oxygen lance that will be used to cut a door in the front of a huge custom-built safe. As you’d expect from Michael Mann, the oxygen lance is real, requiring fire extinguishing foam to keep the sparks from igniting the set. We get a welder’s mask view of the door melting under its 6,000 degree barrage. It’s oddly beautiful, a sparkle shower of diamonds, like the loot inside.
You can’t walk away from the mob, and Leo makes that point very clear by hitting Frank in the heart. Frank’s partner pays for his mistake, when Dennis Farina (in his first role) unloads a bullpup shotgun into him. Leo gives Frank a brutal and graphic speech explaining how he owns him, and what he will do to the people he loves if he disobeys again. It belongs with Glengarry Glen Ross and other classic, vitriolic monologues. And when Leo is done, Frank knows exactly where he stands.
This is not to say that Thief has no weaknesses. It can be a bit too obvious, and too quick; as soon as Frank signs up with Leo, he’s walking streets paved with gold. Frank’s immediate coldness as he disassembles everything he once cared about is almost too much to bear. The slow-motion explosions lack panache. But the utter nihilism of how he destroys his life is unequaled in film, as Frank’s Zen koan about your possessions owning you is writ large in fire across the screen. When Frank confronts his enemy, he is a man with nothing; he has thrown everyone out of his life, and burned down everything he owns. He has left humanity and become the ice cold criminal he must be to continue his profession
To Live and Die in L.A.portrays the same descent, for a man on the other side of the law. John Pankow’s performance as Vukovich is oft overlooked, but I found it more interesting than Petersen’s emotional live wire as Chance. Chance is capable of anything, and Friedkin doesn’t sugarcoat it or make him likeable. It is Vukovich who grounds us. He freaks out. Often. He panics in the backseat as Chance barrels the wrong way down the freeway, looking like a jonesing cokehead racing toward his man. Vukovich is ground down both by the invincibility of their criminal targets and Chance’s utter disregard for the rules. Vukovich begins innocent, but it is slowly burned out of him, and we know why, because we’ve gone through hell with him.
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 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 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 with his sharks, when we’d be cut to pieces.
However, Thief is a singular film which portrays the life of the professional burglar like no other. By peopling the movie with real thieves, real cops, and Chicago bluesmen, Mann made the outlandish story utterly believable and gripping. The screen is a black night canvas painted with neon, the flash of diamonds and the electric burn of a welder’s torch, with only brief respites on the sunny beach of San Diego after the big score. We visit a world of rocks glasses amber with bourbon, we meet night people who stagger home as the sun rises—who steal riches while we sleep—and we meet an ice cold thief who knows the only way to survive on your own in that world is to have nothing.
Of the two directors, Michael Mann has stuck to crime, going on to make Heat, Public Enemies, and Collateral. William Friedkin faded for a time, but has returned with a noir film called Killer Joe that is generating a lot of buzz. I hope these two directors butt heads once more in this decade. Michael Mann was recently attached to direct Don Winslow’s The Winter of Frankie Machine, starring Robert DeNiro, and that’s a film I’d love to see. Maybe John Milius could AD the surfing scenes. That would be something.
Thomas Pluck is the Bullet Award-winning writer of the Denny the Dent stories, as well as hard-boiled and humorous fiction that has appeared in The Utne Reader, Beat to a Pulp, Spinetingler, McSweeney’s, Crimespree Magazine and many others. He is also the editor of the Lost Children anthologies to benefit PROTECT and Children 1st. He is working on his first novel, entitled Bury the Hatchet. Find him on Twitter @thomaspluck.