Monday, August 19, 2013

Shoot First, Die Later (1974) review


Luc Merenda (Lt. Dominic/Dominico Malacarne), Delia Boccardo (Sandra), Richard Conte (Mazzanti), Raymond Pelligrin (Pascal), Gianni Santuccio (Chief of Police), Vittorio Caprioli (Serafino Esposito), Rosario Borelli (Garrito)

Directed by Fernando Di Leo

The Short Version: Crime cinema kingpin Di Leo's grim tale of a crooked cop and all the lives he inadvertently destroys was rarely seen till now. The incorruptible, righteous cop of HIGH CRIME (1973) and other similar movies is corrupt and self-centered in SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER. An angry, controversial film in its day, its subject matter seems passe in this day and age, but Di Leo's direction is inspired, if aggressively cynical.  

Lt. Dominic Malacarne is a well respected, much loved Milanese cop; a hero to the people, the media, his father and his department. What no one knows is that Dominic is a cop on the take -- employed by the underworld to keep their operations running smoothly. When a minor complaint involving a quasi-neurotic Neapolitan threatens to expose him and his shady employers, a string of tragic events sends Dominic down the path for revenge.

Famed and controversial writer-director Fernando Di Leo has a few genuine classics under his belt like the superb MILAN CALIBER 9 (1972) and its two follow-ups MANHUNT (1972) and THE BOSS (1973). SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER (1974) can now join those signature works as one of the directors best, and one of the best examples of the genre itself. Previously available via bad quality bootlegs and non-English friendly versions; and never released in pristine quality till now, Di Leo's once rare movie had long been one of the most sought after titles in the Italian crime film canon.

The 'Violent Cop' movies exploded onto the scene when 1973s HIGH CRIME got the ball rolling with no-nonsense policemen battling all manner of scum with guns and excessive force. Maurizio Merli instantaneously perfected this type of heroic figure; but in Di Leo's movie, this sort of civic authority is anything but noble. There are actually a couple of times during the picture where you think Malacarne will redeem himself, but it never comes. 

Whereas Merli's (and other similar roles played by different actors) cop characters battled a flawed judicial system and corrupt officials while trying to make crime pay, Merenda's Dominic goes in the opposite direction. The righteous cop lives a simple life while the self-absorbed Dominic reaps the benefits of his criminality. But in both cases, the ethical and the dishonest eventually implode and crumble by the consequences of their actions -- whether good or bad.

Unlike Merli's signature movies, Di Leo's film isn't technically an action picture. It's interested in being more than escapist entertainment aligning itself more in the company of a film like EXECUTION SQUAD (1971); and, to a degree, THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS (1973) -- which also starred Luc Merenda and Richard Conte.

Luc Merenda's frozen acting style suits the role, although less so during the scenes where he has to emote. His crooked cop is supposed to be cold and detached, and Merenda handles those traits admirably. The characters moments of poignancy are few, and carried effortlessly by Salvo Randone, who plays Dominic's father. These scenes -- such as when Dominic is forced to admit to his father he's been unfaithful to his profession -- are among the strongest in the film; and this is a film bolstered by powerful moments.

Merenda didn't get by on good looks alone while starring in Sergio Martino's Giallo favorite TORSO (1973), the aforementioned THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS (1973) and the ambitious political crime movie SILENT ACTION (1975). Merenda did a few other tough cop roles like the rollickingly silly A MAN CALLED MAGNUM and the entertaining DESTRUCTION FORCE (both 1977).

As in some of his other works, the directors leftist politics are lying just under the surface occasionally making their presence known both visually and audibly. In Di Leo's law and order world as presented here, no one achieves their success legitimately. Somebody along the way suffers for it. This is the antithesis of the upright, stoic public service figure as famously represented in Maurizio Merli's cop interpretations. Granted, Merli had another year before he appeared on the cinematic beat, but his films are the benchmark of the 'Violent Cop' style of the Euro crime genre. 

Regardless of your political leanings, the director fashioned a compelling screenplay that's filled with engaging interplay between the good guys, the bad guys and the victims and curious parties. 

One of the films notable qualities is its cesspool of cruel irony emanating from Dominic and his moonlighting as an underworld subordinate. The duplicity and lies of Merenda's rotten cop builds and builds to the point where it becomes near impossible to cover his tracks. The heated relationship, the insulting back and forth between Dominic and his criminal employers is destined to boil over at some point; and when it does, the viewer expects Dominic to see the err of his ways once the picture turns into a revenge-action movie in its latter half. But then Di Leo pulls the rug out from under you yet again leading up to the shocking conclusion.

There's also a bit of nasty animal cruelty on display that will possibly disgust some viewers. The sequence involves two homosexual hitmen who not only snuff out their target via strangulation, but also their quarry's pet cat. Misogyny is also present in Di Leo's film. Violence towards women is a staple of these movies much as it was in the Italian westerns that preceded them. Considering a high quotient of violence enters the fray during the last half, it's all the more potent since Di Leo has spent his time wisely building predominantly insidious main characters whose actions affect the innocents around them.

Luis Bacalov's melancholic musical compositions are modestly derivative of some of his other scores for Di Leo's works, but it's quite good and varied stylistically in its cues.

Now that it can be easily seen, SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER (1974) should fit nicely among the top tier of Di Leo's earlier works and other European crime classics in general. It's so engrossing and well made, one wonders why it took so long for a restored version to surface. The film had a bad reputation at the time for the approach to its subject matter, so possibly that may have something to do with why it took so long to see a proper release. To that end, it's a powerful motion picture that explores familiar, often mined territory, but does so with a professionalism that covers its topics provocatively instead of sensationalizing them. Fans of the the director, his storytelling style, and the genre will not be disappointed.

This review is representative of the Raro DVD.

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