How William Friedkin’s The French Connection Defined The Modern Movie Car Chase – /Film

You know what else a great filmmaker does? He weathers a series of catastrophic flops (“The Brink’s Job,” “Sorcerer,” “Cruising” and “Deal of the Century”), and bounces back with an all-time banger in “To Live and Die in L.A.” And knowing his rep as the constructor of perhaps the car chase to top all car chases, he tries to top his masterpiece.

As far as I’m concerned, he pulled it off.

“To Live and Die in L.A.” is a radically different beast. It’s a paranoid procedural built around an explicitly suicidal Secret Service agent (William Petersen) who involves his new partner (John Pankow) in an unhinged counterfeiting investigation. This plunges them headlong into a bungled buy of stolen diamonds that kicks off a car chase which concludes with Petersen barreling up a freeway off-ramp into oncoming traffic.

The freeway finale deservedly gets most of the praise, but before the agents are chased into this desperate situation, they’re dodging assault rifle fire along the banks of a railroad-adjacent reservoir. There’s an insane stunt that involves Petersen’s car speeding past a train engine and cutting across its path. Before that, there’s a high-speed crane shot at the 1:43 point of this video that I think only a maniac like William Friedkin would try to pull off. No one would dare to make a film as logistically complex and fundamentally nasty as “To Live and Die in L.A.,” and I think this is a dreadful thing because we live in fundamentally nasty times.

Here’s the good news: No one was seriously injured during the filming of these scenes. Here’s the not-so-great news: “To Live and Die in L.A.” is currently unavailable to stream anywhere. As for “The French Connection,” it’s out there, and it’s a must-see/must-revisit. As for Friedkin, he was a wonderfully entertaining raconteur who helped rescue Hollywood in the early 1970s. He was nuts in the best way, and I will miss him dearly.

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