Winners, Losers, and Survivors: A Crime Blog [To Live and Die in LA Review]

November; Production Process; Heist Movies:

To Live and Die in LA Review


To Live and Die in LA is about counterfeiting, and is in no way a true heist film. It may not be about heists, but it have one of the most balls-to-the-wall heists in it, and holds its head high as one of the sleaziest crime films I’ve ever seen. 



To Live and Die in LA was directed by William Friedkin in 1985 and stars William Petersen as a hothead cop out to avenge his dead partner (who was only two days from retirement). Petersen’s enemy and partner-in-crime is none other than Willem Dafoe, who plays an artist / the top counterfeiter in LA. Petersen is accompanied by a new partner, played by John Pankow, as they break all the rules in their pursuit of vengeance against Dafoe.

to live and die in la petersen 2

The film is very jumbled in its story and feels more like a series of really great scenes. The opening is a badass, secret service style bust. The next scene introduces Willem Dafoe – who steals every scene – and his weird, artsy girlfriend and their crazy sexual relationship. Dafoe shows that he can be surreal and still kick ass. In one scene, he starts by acting goofy in front of associates who have screwed him over, and then switches in a single bipolar moment to become brutally serious. Dafoe even accomplishes an amazing feat as a movie villain, when in the climax of the film, he does something to Petersen that is completely unexpected. Dafoe you crazy bastard; only you could play this part and have people actually take it seriously.


The other scenes involve Petersen and Pankow following a trail of counterfeit bills while falling deeper and deeper into corruption as they have to make sacrifices just to keep up with Dafoe. Finally, they make a choice that leads them to commit one of the greatest heists ever. Holy shit is it awesome! (More on that later). The climax involves a showdown between Dafoe (with his goon in tow) and Petersen (with his partner in tow) that begins in a locker room, and ends in a factory. This summary is vague, but that is because the movie really picks up after the heist, with twist after twist after twist, and an all out assault on the senses.


Dafoe may steal the show, but Petersen takes the cake as one of the sleaziest protagonists to ever grace the silver screen. All you need to do is look at his hair and the sleaze is already there. There is enough grease and sex sweat in that hair to make a prostitute gag. The corrupt cop (Petersen) is the kind of guy who has no problem keeping a prostitute out of jail, as long as she sleeps with him and gives him information thats serves his investigation. His new partner is more mellow and by the book, but after his adventures with Petersen, he ends up just as corrupt as his partner. To Live and Die in LA uses all the classic 80s cop film tropes before they became the plot of every Lethal Weapon movie. The cops are tropes; the scenes are tropes; the heist is genius beyond compare, and these actors and their director own every second of this film, which has came to define one of LA’s most classic tropes – a city with the most corrupt law enforcement in the US.


Favorite Scene (Spoilers): The heist! Petersen and Pankow plan to knock off a guy bringing money in exchange for diamonds from some heistmen. Petersen and Pankow plan to heist the heisters, making their heist, a tweist (double heist) and then plan on using the money as front money to get in good with Dafoe in order to bust him in a sting operation. They pull the tweist and take the guy with the money, who they accidentally kill. Petersen and Pankow flee and are suddenly chased by both the diamond heisters and a shit-ton of random guys with guns in cars. It turns into a massive car chase with Petersen and Pankow driving on the wrong side of a freeway, avoiding dense, oncoming traffic that continually smashes into the waves of pursuers trying to shoot Petersen and Pankow down. They escape the pursuers and cause a massive pile up on the freeway in the process. When they return to the station, they learn that the man they killed was part of an FBI sting operation to catch the diamond heisters and that all of the men pursuing them were FBI agents. Petersen and Pankow give the best “oh shit” faces I have ever seen in my entire life, and it all goes down in one scene.

Written by Tyler Ducheneaux

Images from To Live and Die in LA

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