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The Details: Masters Copy

In a remarkable sequence in To Live and Die in L.A., William Friedkin shows the precision and force of the human hand forging banknotes.

“Money alone sets all the world in motion.”
—Publilius Syrus, Maxim 656

The desire for money, for personal gain or business interests, is a frequent catalyst for dramatic action in William Friedkin’s films. In The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), The French Connection (1971), Sorcerer (1977), The Brink’s Job (1978), Deal of the Century (1983), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Blue Chips (1994) and, more recently, Killer Joe (2011), the pursuit of money entails underhand tactics, struggle, betrayal and violence. Dollar bills are passed from one person to another, in plain view or sight unseen; or promised at the completion of a job; or seized, burned or spent. But the money always materializes again, somehow, coursing into the narrative economy and organizing social relations.

In a notable sequence in To Live and Die in L.A. we see this material created illegally, and witness its eruption and flow into the system. Friedkin here offers an alternative vision to the public information images of official engraving and printing of money in Trapped (1949), an earlier film noir directed by Richard Fleischer about the US Treasury's efforts to stop forgery. Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe), a counterfeiter and painter, dressed in a kimono that gives the scene a slightly ceremonial air, carefully aligns four bills on a copier. With the sharp electric crackle of a lamp, and its flash of fluorescent light, a negative is created. Under the safelight of the dark room, the bathed negative appears blood soaked. 

In silent concentration Masters makes slight alterations to the template, brushing black paint across white flecks, obscuring the serial numbers, the Treasury seals of the source notes, and the dust of the photographic duplication stage. He wields his scalpel with the confidence and precision of a skilled artisan. The soundtrack is at first only punctuated by the scraping, clicking and dabbing of the operation. The potential for invisibility needed of this illegal tender, so that the fraud remains inconspicuous, comes naturally; the source image, on an exposed aluminium lithographic plate, is seen only when a single breath warms it—or is revealed by the alchemy of gum and developing fluid. Light, record, develop, edit, copy: stages of commercial filmmaking itself, an industry also directed toward financial gain.

The red developer drips like blood onto the metal sheet, and is smeared across it by Masters’s hand wiping rapidly—the association of violence; the speed and vigor of the criminal enterprise. The beat of a musical theme composed by Wang Chung drops onto the audio track and the song ‘City of Angels’ plays, its drum track sliding into the rhythms of the multilith machine. Just as the electronic instrumentation (drums and synth) of this Eighties pop music allows the endless replication of one programmed beat or pattern of notes, Masters’s counterfeiting procedure churns out copies of a source twenty dollar bill. Four quick cuts mimic the guillotine that slices a set of notes into stacks of single bills. The pulse of the production of money almost matches the tempo of the score and guides the editing of the image. It is there in the opening credits sequence too, where we see the subtle synchronicity between this musical motif, the movement of money, counted quickly by dealers on the streets of L.A, and the assembly of shots.

Above: A Man Escaped

Such a lengthy, wordless sequence focused on work by hand, on artisanal craft or toil, is not all that common outside of the documentary film. There is the safecracking in Michael Mann's Thief (1981) and other heist movies, and the painstaking efforts of prison escapees, like those of Fontaine in A Man Escaped (1956). That film’s director, Robert Bresson, preceded Friedkin, too, in evoking a detailed range of textures through sound design over a seemingly quiet scene. Bearing in mind this cinematic influence, one might also recall Travis Bickle’s nighttime workshop in Taxi Driver (1976), where a mechanical appendage for the ejection of a gun is fashioned by the lonesome cabbie. The precision and force of the human hand—and of the filmmaking apparatus as it is handled, giving life to these images—are captured in these moments. It is not at all unusual in the films of William Friedkin, though.

Above: Taxi Driver

Friedkin has brought to the cinema some of the most exquisite sequences of human labour, of meticulous handiwork, and the sweat and the strain of a troublesome, pressing task—from the car stripping in the search for drugs in The French Connection to the ritual to ward off evil in The Exorcist (1973), and the fashioning of a primitive knife for survival in The Hunted (2003). The second half of Sorcerer is one of the longest sustained depictions of hard graft in a popular narrative film. Its famous bridge crossing and stone detonation set pieces, realised with distinct colours of desperation and nervous energy, are equally compelling—both built upon the potentially devastating consequences of the slightest physical movement in testing circumstances.

The most beautiful example, however, is found in this passage in To Live and Die in L.A. As we see the means by which Eric Masters forges money in his desert warehouse far from prying eyes, image and sound are powerfully interlocked. Like Masters himself, we are apt to take pleasure as we observe. The thrill of this transgression fits Friedkin’s worldview neatly, since the artistic capability that the apparently villainous character displays here contrasts uneasily with the reckless determination and collateral damage caused throughout the film by the representative of the Law, Treasury Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen). Fake or genuine, good or bad, the value of objects, of motives and ethics blur in the smog and heat of L.A. And it is tokens of chance that finalise the counterfeiting process, as Masters tosses blue and white poker chips into a dryer along with big clutches of ‘paper,’ and the cycle begins again. 

Part of our on-going series The Details, a column that catches the small within the big, focusing on the individual elements that make cinema so expressive.

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