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To Live and Die in L.A. Is William Friedkin’s Most Underrated Masterpiece

The first sequence which shows Masters making the initial plates for the bogus $20 bills is a cinematic education. Friedkin hired an actual counterfeiter as a consultant to stage the scene. The finest points are illuminated, each stencil cut, brush stroke, plate retraction, and steam. We get a tangibly visible feel for the deep reds of the printing primer, and the specific colors and textures of the paints used to perfectly mimic legal tender.

If there weren’t so much expensive machinery involved, it would be tempting to try it at home. As it happened, some of the fake $20 bills designed for the film leaked out of the set, and real authorities were on the alert.

Things They Don’t Teach at the Academy

To make The French Connection more than plausibly authentic, Friedkin, along with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, went on drug raids with the cops being portrayed in the film. “Eddie Egan, who was the character who Hackman played, would give me his gun in a situation like that,” Friedkin told the DGA in 2003. “He would say, ‘Here, watch the back.’ And I would be standing in the back with a .38.”

For immersive authenticity, Friedkin based To Live and Die in L.A. on a novel written by former U.S. Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, who also co-wrote the screenplay, and lectured the director on the realities of the job. As much as the counterfeiter with the deft brush stroke, the federal cops in the film also prove serious police work is equal parts art form and science. Forensics may be carved in stone, but rules can be bent, and To Live and Die in L.A. quotes enough procedural protocol for all the loopholes to be explained. 

When Richard Chance (William L. Petersen), the reckless adrenaline-junkie hot dog Los Angeles Secret Service agent at the center of the film, asks for front money to make a hand-to-hand buy of bad bills, ensuring a conviction, his superior officer tells him: “You violated section 302.5” of the manual, “all agents must notify the agent in charge of all ongoing investigations.”

Chance doesn’t give much notification about anything. He learned that from his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), a veteran special agent two days from retirement, who is still taking risks without backup. “Buddy, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Masters tells him before a new special agent, John Vukovich (John Pankow), has to be assigned to the case.

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