Living To Die

Director: Wings Hauser
Wings Hauser, Darcy DeMoss, Asher Brauner, Arnold Vosloo

They say that there are two things that are inevitable, and they are death and taxes. It would tax me too much to talk about how I've personally found taxes to be inevitable, so I will focus on death. When they say death is inevitable, they are not just talking about people passing from this mortal realm - or animals and plants for that matter - they are talking about everything else. Since my interest is in pop culture, one of the regular kinds of death that interest me are fads in pop culture, specifically those found in motion pictures and television. There's one fad in motion pictures and television that, while I wouldn't say is utterly dead in the present day, does seem to be on life support. That happens to be motion pictures and television productions that are about private detectives. Think about it - decades ago in the golden age of Hollywood, we were getting cinematic adaptations of the works of authors like Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely) and Mickey Spillane (Kiss Me Deadly). As the decades progressed, private investigators would still pop up regularly in movies, but television in fairly short notice had taken the private detective torch for the most part. Some of the classic private detective shows that came from the past included Mannix, The Rockford Files, Remington Steele, and Cannon. Now, compare those past decades of private detectives in movies and television with today, and you'll likely see that in this day and age of ours, there is a remarkable dearth of private detectives to be found. You can probably find some if you look hard enough, but face it - the glory days of the screen private detective have long passed. Like with westerns, the private detective genre had its day, but it's now tomorrow.

Of course, this brings up an inevitable question: What caused the screen private detective genre to decline so much from its heights? Yes, as I've said, everything eventually dies, but everything dies from different ways. I've though about this a lot, and I have some theories that I'm pretty confident explain what slowly caused this genre to lose its popularity. The first is the rise in technology. Regular law enforcement has got a lot better in tracking criminals thanks to special law enforcement personnel like CSIers who analyze DNA and other clues that were out of reach in the past. With this new technology, the need for a private detective to take up the slack of clueless policemen went down considerably. As well, people in this day and age expect any kind of investigator to use modern technology, and private detectives today don't have access to much modern investigative technology. Why would you want to watch someone doing something old school? And there's the fact the public has access to the Internet and some other kinds of technology, which cuts down their need of a private detective. The second theory I have is the same as one theory I have for why westerns have lost their popularity: The genre has been mined so much by so many creative people, that in this day and age it's near impossible to think of new kinds of private detective stories that would seem fresh and interesting to a modern audience who has already seen it all. A missing relative? Done to death. Blackmail? Done to death. Having to follow an individual and track what he's doing? You guessed it. You don't need to hire a private investigator to tell you that there's precious little left under the sun to use.

Anyway, it seems like a rare thing today when a private investigator shows up on the screen. One time when it did was in a small gem; read my review of the well-done short film Private, which was made in 2022. It seems that it was in the 1990s when things were really starting to crumble for Living To Dieonscreen private detectives. It started to get difficult to see private detectives on the big or small screen, and when they were visible, often it seemed that private investigators were just brought up in throwaway roles and/or used as comic characters such as in Ace Ventura or There's Something About Mary. Private detectives were often designated for direct-to-video productions, which is where I would like to bring up Living To Die. It was advertised as an attempt to recreate, albeit in a modern sense, the private detective in a film noir light. That was interesting to me. What made it more interesting was that it not only starred B movie actor Wings Hauser (The Art Of Dying), he also happened to be the director. But what made it especially interesting was that it was a production from PM Entertainment, who in the 1990s made top-notch direct-to-video actioners like Last Man Standing, The Sweeper, and Rage. As I've said many times before (and not enough to death quite yet!): How could I resist? In Living To Die, Hauser plays a fellow named Nick Carpenter, a former police officer who now makes a living in Las Vegas as a private detective of sorts. One day he get contacted by his friend Eddie (Asher Brauner, Escape From El Diablo), a wealthy guy with connections to the municipal government. It seems that Eddie is being blackmailed by a fellow named Jimmy (Arnold Vosloo, Con Express) after Eddie got entangled with a hooker and the hooker ended up dead, and Eddie doesn't want to be arrested and thrown in prison. Nick is told to meet with Jimmy and deal with the blackmail payment, but during the meeting, everyone except for Nick ends up dead. Nick, of course, wants to sort this all out and get an explanation, and when he subsequently starts his investigation, he comes across the hooker, a woman named Maggie (Darcy DeMoss, Return To Horror High) - who is far from being dead. As you've probably guessed, as Nick continues his investigations with Maggie in hand, he starts to fall in love with her. But does Maggie feel the same way towards Nick? More importantly, does she hold the key to solving the case?

If you're a PM Entertainment aficionado like I am, while you might be intrigued by Living To Die's setup and plot being much different than other PM Entertainment productions, you are probably still wondering if this movie has the same slam-bang slick action sequences as its brethren. Well, action-wise, what's on display in Living To Die is disappointing. Aside from a few brief moments of fisticuffs and shootings, the only action in the movie is in the opening sequence showcasing Nick when he was still a cop, and it's just a humdrum vehicle pursuit with a few bullets fired, capped with a so-so aerial car flip. But I wasn't too disappointed by this lack of action, since I knew from this start this movie was more a serious detective drama. And while actor/director Wings Hauser might not have been able to display much action, in the director's chair he does get a lot of essentials done just right. The movie looks great, thanks in part to the trademark top-notch cinematography by PM co-founder Richard Pepin, but Hauser also finds some interesting and eye-catching shooting locations in and around Las Vegas, even a couple of scenes shot in the nearby snow country. Hauser also throws in a occasional directorial flair such as a P.O.V. shot of Jimmy barging into Eddie's office. But most and best of all, Hauser gives this movie great atmosphere that while not quite like that of detective noirs forty or so hears earlier, can stand proudly next to them. Of course, this being a '90s noir, there are saxophones on the soundtrack, but Hauer on his end gives Living To Die a real edge with its weary and kind of downbeat feeling, one that feels really natural and not artificial. It's almost like a living dream, but there is always enough reality felt that you are convinced this is a real world. Everything and everyone seem resigned to whatever fate some higher power assigned it.

Living To Die doesn't have a slam-bang feel to it, but has a slow pace, albeit one with a tone that usually enchants you. Though there are a few times when it is a bit too slow for its own good. This usually comes with blatant padding, ranging from Nick playing a round of poker with his buddies, or riding horses with Maggie. Seeing how the entire movie, padding at all, lasts only a mere eighty-four minutes, I guess this padding was felt necessary by Hauser to get an acceptable running time, even if it does generate impatience with viewers. So I don't blame Hauser for the padding, but more for screenwriter Stephen Smoke (who wrote several other screenplays for PM Entertainment, such as the Lorenzo Lamas vehicle Final Impact) for not fleshing out the screenplay adequately. There are additional issues I had with Smoke's screenplay, by the way. For starters, there are some glaring unanswered questions. A couple of times Nick is witness to someone dying, but we don't see how afterwards he convinced the cops he wasn't responsible. Also, it's not made clear after the first death Nick witnesses during this case how he gets the phone number of Maggie so he can trace her whereabouts. The biggest issues I had with Smoke's screenplay, however, were surrounding the entire relationship Nick starts up with Maggie. I can't see how an ex-cop like Nick would fall in love with Maggie so quickly, nor could I believe how Nick wouldn't make a complete investigation about everything he's learned about Maggie before he makes the plunge towards solving her issues and planning a future for the rest of their lives. If you've seen a number of noirs like I have, you'll probably be able to eventually guess the twist that eventually pops up towards the end, but as predictable as that was, it does seem to fit twists that come up in those classic noirs. Also, I'll give credit to Smoke for ending the movie with a scene that's both disturbing and not typical for B movies of the 1990s; you'll remember that final scene for quite some time after it's displayed in front of your eyes.

While I am still talking about Smoke's screenplay, I'll freely and gladly add another aspect of his writing that I enjoyed: The dialogue. The conversations the various characters in Living To Die engage in might not be overly clever, but that's to the movie's benefit. The characters speak in a more believable manner, and even when one of them spouts a memorable comeback or witty remark, the words aren't overly flourished, and you can believe these are real people speaking like how you or your friends might speak in the same situation. It also helps that the entire cast is (mostly) spot-on in delivering their dialogue. The only actor I had something of a problem with at times was Asher Brauner as Eddie. What's good about his performance is that he doesn't act the usual way blackmailed victims do in films of this nature; instead, he acts annoyed and aggressive in a way you can see he still is holding some cards that might help him out of this situation. The problem is that eventually his annoyed and aggressive manner get a bit too hammy towards the end, though Brauner does somewhat redeem his performance in his final scene, when he becomes one disturbing individual (I'll say no more and leave it to you to witness.) The rest of Living To Die's cast give solid performances. Wings Hauser keeps his sometimes-psychotic acting style toned down here, choosing wisely to come across as likable, albeit a likable character who can make some foolish decisions. And as the femme fatale, Darcy DeMoss doesn't have the cold snottiness other female noir characters exude, but comes across more as an ordinary woman in a tough situation... but in the end not one hundred percent sympathetic. You'll have to see the movie to know what I exactly mean by that, and if you are a B movie fan who is intrigued by the prospect of a PM Entertainment movie being more a tribute to detective noir than to explosions and car crashes, I think just about everything else concerning Living To Die will be just as pleasing to you as it was for me.

(Posted July 12, 2024)

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See also: The Art Of Dying, Hollywood Harry, Private