During Shoot First, Die Later’s opening half hour, you might be excused for thinking that it seems like an elegantly crafted boilerplate, with The French Connection being the most obvious object of emulation. All the requisite elements click into place: a full complement of brutal gangland warfare, an attempted daylight robbery that shifts suddenly into a protracted car chase (albeit one that pales in comparison to the one William Friedkin staged under the el train tracks), and a media-darling policeman who’ll stop at nothing to get his man. And then something rather remarkable happens. Hero cop Domenico Malacarne (Luc Merenda) and vicious crime lord Pascal (Raymond Pellegrin) wind up together in the same room, and their interaction proves less than adversarial. Turns out that Malacarne is on the take, willing to turn a blind eye to organized crime—at least when it comes to gambling and prostitution.
Most of the poliziotteschi crime films of the 1970s focus on the rogue cop whose badge isn’t enough to guarantee justice will be served. (Enzo G. Castellari’s Street Law is exemplary in this regard; the very title pretty much says it all.) Until the free-floating pessimism of disillusioned ’70s filmmakers prompted a thoroughgoing revision of genre tropes, relatively few films dared to feature an unabashedly corrupt cop. (Obsessive, conflicted, or otherwise prone-to-cross-the-line exemplars weren’t quite so innovative, of course.) Fewer still were brazen enough to position this character as the lead, aside from the stray outlier like Joseph Losey’s noir oddity The Prowler.
Not only does Shoot First, Die Later place its rotten policeman front and center, thereafter it seems to take great glee in viciously dismantling every element of Malacarne’s lavish and comprised existence. When the syndicate tries to strong-arm him into covering up gunrunning, drug smuggling, and eventually murder, Malacarne finally balks. The collateral damage in his war against Pascal’s criminal network will eventually include his tony gallery-owner girlfriend, Sandra (Delia Boccardo), as well as his father (Salvo Randone), a functionary in the local constabulary who blindly worships his son as a take-no-prisoners hero.
Director Fernando Di Leo brings real verve to the action set pieces. Handheld cameras lend an air of jittery authenticity, an abiding aesthetic that largely dictates against incorporating too much flash and filigree. Nevertheless, Di Leo’s film isn’t entirely without just such grace notes: During the post-robbery chase, Di Leo sets the camera at ground-level as Malacarne pursues his quarry toward its position. As Malacarne leaps over the spot, Di Leo simply tilts the camera up and then over upside down in one unbroken movement, rather than cut on the action to another setup; it’s undeniably a showy bit of business, but one that manages to feel organic and integral to the logic of the scene. Elsewhere, Malacarne plows his car through a public square, scaring up volleys of startled pigeons, with enough flapping and fluttering caught in slow motion to even bring a tear to the eye of John Woo.
Shoot First, Die Later has an unrelieved gloominess at its core. This is a film of such bleakness that its relentlessly downbeat vibe seems uncharacteristic for even this type of bloody-minded genre fare. For all that the unconvincing postscript thrown up over the frozen-framed final shot attempts to isolate individual agents, and so inoculate against systemic corruption, Di Leo’s film offers no such simplistic consolations. There’s no dodging the bullet that has your name on it. The guilty and the innocent alike are led like sheep to their inglorious demise.
Raro Video’s sparkling Blu-ray transfer of Shoot First, Die Later, making its American home-video debut in any format, has been freshly struck from a 35mm negative print. Fernando Di Leo’s masterwork isn’t meant to be an aesthetically pleasant outing (it’s far too indebted to grimy The French Connection verisimilitude for any pretty picture-making), but the image here is clear and almost entirely clean of artifacts. Clarity and detail are strong, and colors are vibrant and solidly saturated. Sonically speaking, there are two mono PCM tracks: an English dub and the original Italian. The latter is definitely the way to go since the English track is a bit less nuanced, though even here the soundtrack and effects stand out decently enough. On the Italian track, English subtitles translate Domenico Malacarne’s first name as "Dominique" for some reason; other than that, they’re practically identical to the English dub’s dialogue. Luis Enriquez Bacalov’s scorching funk score adds octane to the film’s propulsive forward momentum.
Two newly commissioned documentaries provide much-needed context on the poliziotteschi genre and Di Leo’s filmmaking process. "Master of the Game" spends 20 minutes with Di Leo, a voluble and opinionated fellow, who discusses his early love of noir films, his start in the industry as a scriptwriter on spaghetti westerns and crime films, and his overall disgust at the poliziotteschi label slapped on his films. Di Leo believes, rightly or not, that his own works are more grounded in reality than the standard genre fare. "Second Round of the Game" lines up interviews with star Luc Merenda, Di Leo’s AD Franc Lo Cascio, and film editor Amedeo Giomini, who recall their collaboration with Di Leo. Merenda describes Di Leo’s rarefied social and cultural background, which he found a bit hard to reconcile with his gritty and violent films, while Lo Cascio makes the dubious claim that "just about any" of the slate of virile contemporary genre stars would have been just as effective as Merenda in the role of Domenico Malacarne. There’s also a lavishly illustrated booklet that delves into many other aspects of the film, as well as Di Leo’s career, especially the intriguing prospect of a collaboration between Di Leo and Jean-Pierre Melville that was thwarted by the latter’s premature demise. Finally, the disc sleeve contains some terrific (and ultraviolent) alternative cover art.
One of the great, bleak European crime films of the 1970s, Shoot First, Die Later gets a suitably high-caliber Blu-ray transfer and a full clip of informative supplements from Raro Video.