The following three crime dramas share a commonality of purpose and style, in the electro-pop tracked machinations of their flawed players. Three testosterone fuelled templates of urban male machismo – Michael Mann’s Thief (1979), William Friedkin’s To Live And Die In L.A (1985), and Nicolas Winding Refn’s ’80’s tinged love letter to both, Drive (2011).
Their protagonists (also antagonist, in the case of TLADILA) are consummate professionals in their craft, driven to pursue their own goals, methodical and dedicated. Each film opens on men at work in fetishised detail, a glimpse into an underworld we can only guess at.
Thief is based loosely on “The Home Invaders: The Confessions Of A Cat Burglar By Chicago Thief Frank Hohimer”. “Frank” was real thief Jean Seybold, who Mann retained as a consultant. James Caan’s Frank, however, is no cat burglar, holding up rich old ladies. To make him more sympathetic, his heists of anonymous jewellers and bank vaults are elaborate, lovingly filmed technical marvels. The opening robbery consists of carefully calibrated close-ups. We see an alarm box bypassed, and an industrial drill magnetically clamped to the safe door. Shards of metal flower free, as the drill penetrates the lock. The camera lens follows through, in a shot digitally aped by David Fincher in Panic Room. In Thief’s later job, Mann lingers over sparks flying from a white hot oxygen lance, like a secretive safecracker’s fourth of July celebration.
To Live And Die in L.A’s villain Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is an expert counterfeiter who indulges his ego in a legitimate front as a modern artist. Like Thief, we witness the elaborate process he goes through in creating fake money plates and printing counterfeit notes. As did Mann, Friedkin employed a real counterfeiter as a technical consultant. The filmmakers were only supposed to print notes on one side, however some two-sided notes were made and made their way onto the street.
Masters is a Zen artist, covering all the bases, unflappable. Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) is an agent of chaos, who believes a gun and a badge give him the ability to transcend life and death, and to go beyond the law to bring Masters down. After his first partner’s death investigating Masters’ outlying printing location, Chance whittles down his new partner Vukovich’s reservations, sucking him into his driven, corrupt methodology.
Drive opens with its moonlighting stuntman / mechanic anti-hero arranging a meet by disposable cell phone in an anonymous night time hotel room. He lays out the parameters of his involvement in a robbery:
“There’s a hundred thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minute window and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own.”
His skill set is revealed in the minimal sound design and observation during his evasion and escape from the robbery: the ticking of his watch while waiting for the robbers; the crunch of tires pulling in to a parking spot while a police cruiser drives by; the throb of a police helicopter’s blades and the police scanner in the car; to the gunning of the engine as he takes off. Urgent synth music underscores the action.
Friedkin said of TLADILA that “the entire film is about counterfeit relationships, not just counterfeit money.” Masters burns a painting he’s unsatisfied with, yet he is a narcissist who videotapes his lovemaking. He pays for a pretty dancer to make love with his girlfriend (Debra Feuer) while he watches. Chance has a sexual partner Ruth (Darlanne Fleugel) who he callously strings along, using her as an informant while threatening to revoke her parole if she doesn’t play ball. When she asks for more money, he snaps “You want bread, fuck a baker.”
Thief‘s Frank describes himself as “state raised“. He’s been so long in the pen, he has constructed a fantasy of a perfect life, desperately realised in a naive collage he carries everywhere. He lays his plan out to Jessie (Tuesday Weld) in a charged, matter of fact semi-proposal in a diner, after being late for a date due to attending to “business”. If he can build this model life with her, who he intuits has had a few hard knocks herself, he believes he can transform into a suburban, normal guy, with a wife, kid, house, the whole nine yards. However, it’s a house of cards, soon to blow down.
Driver (Ryan Gosling) is played as an almost savant (“I’m an excellent driver“). Gosling said of the role “The only way to make sense of this is that this is a guy that’s seen too many movies, and he’s started to confuse his life for a film. He’s lost in the mythology of Hollywood and he’s become an amalgamation of all the characters he admires.” He sees himself as the knight in shining armour, come to rescue shy neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), and attempts to be “a real human being” with her.
The films portray the rarely seen underbelly of L.A and Chicago. TLADILA‘s opening titles (the films all share lurid neon letterface and eighties styled elector-pop scores) contain a blood drenched palm tree, backlit by a sickly orange hued sunrise over rusting railway stock and scrapped cars. The working background of undercover agents and counterfeiters shifting notes.
Thief essays Frank’s arrival and departure from the opening robbery in a rain-slicked nightime streetscape scored to the tense synth scoring of Tangerine Dream. Mann says about Frank: “in his mental projection, he moves through a place that’s almost three dimensional. it’s filled with danger, it’s filled with opportunity, he has to avoid discovery, there’s secret places where he keeps the tools of his trade.”
Drive‘s opening titles appear over a digitally pin-sharp L.A nightscape of high rises – more overtly cool, echoing Driver’s inner life also. A neon Tron-scape of escape routes, soundtracked to Cliff Martinez’s minimalist music.
Compromise and personal codes suck our protagonists into hard choices with violent, bloody repercussions. All three films deliver bloodwork up close and explosive. When someone takes a gunshot by revolver or shotgun, or a blade opens a vein, they generally stay dead. Frank’s belief that he is carrying out one last job for Leo (Robert Prosky) is cruelly shortlived. The seemingly cuddly crime boss threatens that unless Frank continues to do high end jobs for him, he’ll destroy his businesses, prostitute his wife, and sell his kid – the kid he pulled strings about so they could adopt in the first place. Rather than bend his will, believing he’ll run out of luck or be betrayed down the line, Frank carries out a scorched earth policy on his life. He shuts down emotionally, as he did in prison, brutally finishing with Jessie, packing her and baby David off to another city with money, and the promise of more to come. He burns down his car lot and bar, before coming gunning for Leo.
Chance and Vukovich have unknowingly been set up by Masters to rip off a supposed criminal, Ling, delivering the money they need as a front payment for his counterfeit notes, so they can bust him. To Masters’ amusement, Ling is an FBI agent engaged in a sting of his own. The agents barely escape the enclosing FBI net by driving the wrong way up the Freeway.
When they later deliver their payment, Chance and Masters’ accomplice Jack kill each other, a shotgun blast blowing a hole in Chance’s face. Vukovich chases Masters to his warehouse where he is burning the plates and presses. He shoots him and Masters drops his lighter, igniting the papers scattered around, going up in flames like his own art.
Drive, when the shit goes down, is like an orgiastic ode to both film’s blood letting. Bernie Rose kills Shannon, Driver’s boss, by calmly slitting his wrist. A favour to Standard, Irene’s just released husband, goes horribly wrong for Driver. Left with the money that belonged to the mob from a botched robbery, Driver is a loose end that could lead to Bernie. He evades a bullet at a motel, but accomplice Blanche gets her face blown off in grisly slo-mo.
Driver stabs the shooter with a broken shower rail. And let’s not even get into the elevator with the guy! A goodbye kiss to Irene could either be for real, or just plays in his head as he foot stomps a gunman. I think even he knows there will be no second date after that.
When he meets Bernie to deliver the money, Bernie warns him, “Any dreams you have, or plans, or hopes for your future…I think you’re going to have to put that on hold.” That goes double for you Bernie, you double-crossing S.O.B.
Finally, our heroes walk off into the sunset, kind of. Frank has convinced himself that the only way to survive in the world is to be beholden to nothing and no-one. Or will he reach out to Jessie, now he’s burned all traces of his old existence? Driver is surely dead, after he and Bernie stab each other in the car park. Yet as the College song A Real human Being fades up, he rouses himself behind the wheel, and drives off, an urban Shane. Just like the movie stars he emulates and doubles for. A mythic hero.
Only TLIDILA pisses vinegar on its character’s French Fries. Chance has danced with death and lost. Ruth believes she is free to make a new start, with some of the money from the robbery. But Vukovich has other ideas. His soul has been corrupted by the dark path Chance led him down. He appears in Ruth’s apartment, leather jacket and aviator shades reflecting Chance back at her. In a chilling reversal of the criminals twist to the guts in the other films, he coldly informs her “You work for me now.”
Friedkin holds on Fleugal’s stunned expression, but can’t help hammering the point home by flashing back to Chance’s car rolling up to her apartment. It seems all three directors are in thrall to their heroes swagger, giving them all the last shot, when logic demands they go down fighting. Real human beings? Or counterfeit lives?