The Subtlest Christmas Movie Ever Made

By  · Published on December 9th, 2014


Los Angeles is a city whose most privileged corners seem to prize youth at any cost against a backdrop of twelve-month sunshine. It is a city in which time moves differently than it does anywhere else, where the passing of seasons simply does not occur in as pronounced a fashion, and traffic replaces weather as the subject of universal conversation.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Los Angeles has never been an iconic city for representing the holiday season. Where New York, Chicago, the suburban Midwest, and even Budapest have provided the settings for numerous entries in Hollywood’s holiday film canon, Los Angeles has rarely been used or imagined as a location that produces a distinct image of the holidays, despite the fact that it has provided soundstages for numerous movies revisited this time of year.

This fact stands out in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA, the director’s 1985 return to the type of fast-paced, gritty, realist police narrative that he made his name on a decade prior with The French Connection. To Live and Die in LA is known for many things – the launch of Willem Dafoe’s career, a wall-to-wall Wang Chung soundtrack, a crazy good high speed chase scene – but it isn’t known well enough as an odd yet fitting holiday movie for Los Angeles, and perhaps the subtlest Christmas movie ever made.

To Live and Die in LA follows the increasingly desperate and ethically questionable lengths that US Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) goes in order to capture counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). The first act of the film ends with Masters and his bodyguard Jack (Jack Hoar) killing Chance’s aging partner, Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), which creates the motivation for Chance’s increasingly impetuous actions in the presence of a new, younger partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow) throughout the rest of the film.

The film’s lengthy first act takes place over Chance and Hart’s attempts to capture Masters until Hart’s death. As the first onscreen text tells us over the opening fade-in of a palm-tree silhouetted Los Angeles dawn, the film’s first events occur on December 20th. Hart’s character dies during a stakeout at a warehouse December 24th, and Chance chases one of Masters’s suspected associates (played by John Turturro) through LAX in early January.

After this airport foot chase, and for more than an hour into the rest of the film, no onscreen dates are given for subsequent events. It’s an odd and glaringly inconsistent decision that raises several questions, especially because there is no narrative information overtly delivered regarding why such exact dates are important to the characters or the narrative unfolding of events in the first place, much less why the supposed importance placed on these exact dates are cast aside for the rest of the film’s running time. Moreover, the particular dates chosen stand out as well: why would a film so decisively highlight dates associated with and around the holiday season? Why is it important at all that Hart be killed on a date that is, for many, impossible to dissociate from Christmas Eve?

There is a strange oscillation between the film’s emphasis and de-emphasis of these dates. On the one hand, providing the titles for these exact dates suggest an importance – if not on their own, than at least regarding the passage of time that their juxtaposition represents. But on the other hand, there is no onscreen evidence – by mention of characters or the presence of holiday décor across a major American city’s public spaces – that Christmas, New Year’s, Hanukkah, or any other solstice holiday is a thing that actually exists in Los Angeles in 1985.

I say this with full awareness of the obvious fact that many do not observe the holidays that make up the so-called “holiday season,” and that, despite the pummeling annual reminder that so much of American life is so obsessively organized around this time of year, for many, December 25th (and even January 1st) is, as obliquely represented in To Live and Die in LA, just another day. But even then, Los Angeles itself, despite the lack of “winter” weather, has never proven especially resistant to looking at it this way.

(In an odd evaluation of the film’s timeline opposite a perceived lack of holiday cheer, this fact is listed as a “goof” on IMDb.)

To portray officials as obsessed with their jobs as this, it would make sense that such days are portrayed only and unquestioningly as days of dedicated work attempting to track down uber-money-printer Willem Dafoe. But it’s still fascinating how direct yet arbitrary Friedkin’s film structures these dates in only the first portion of the narrative – dates that, it’s worth note, aren’t mentioned in the film’s source material. The film’s act of highlighting these dates seems meaningful and intentional, but their correspondence with the film’s events only produce enigma and open interpretation.

To Live and Die in LA’s onscreen dates aren’t the only evidence of its holiday season setting. During the chase scene at LAX, the airport is appropriately packed, consistent with travel anywhere near the holidays at a major international airport, and this is a significant factor in the thrill of the scene as Chance must somehow move past hundreds of stressed travelers to find his target.

Yet an even bigger establishment of temporality lies in the film’s stunning beginning credits sequence, which features Wang Chung’s eponymous single playing out over images of the city in order to accompany the film’s imposing title cards. The titles are, naturally, in an ‘80s-hot green and red, with the red functioning as an adorning cursive over the bolder green lettering – hues familiar to the mid-’80s, yes, but also the signature (and, in a major US city, unavoidable) colors of Christmas.

That such colors are so brashly represented during the opening credits highlights their absence in the rest of the film, which views Los Angeles mostly through gradations of rust, sun and cool blues when not shaded by night. For those used to being inundated by greens and reds from December 20th onward, the beginning credits’ color scheme seemingly primes the audience for a lack of such colors onscreen for most of the running time, a structuring that raises the otherwise silly question about why William Petersen is never seen shopping for a Douglas Fir, or why Willem Dafoe declares no resolutions about how much money he’ll fabricate in 1986.

Los Angeles, as the home of Hollywood, has been responsible for some of the most enduring cinematic images of the holiday season, representations that have influenced the way that this time of year is recognized and observed. Yet Los Angeles itself has never been the go-to site for staging holiday iconography. The relatively aseasonal and enduringly snow-free city simply doesn’t align with the limited ways that we’ve come to envision what late December to early January should look like in Coca-Cola ads and Macauly Culkin movies. To Live and Die in L.A., decisively or not, highlights this fact, thereby providing a rare vision, via Hollywood, that sees the holiday season in tune with LA’s relationship to the general passing of seasons more broadly: indeterminate and largely irrelevant.