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Among the many movie trends from the heyday of Italian cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, few have proven more durable than the poliziotteschi, an idiosyncratic strain of violent crime film in which cops and criminals are perpetually locked in a morally ambiguous battle. A particularly gifted practitioner of the subgenre was Fernando Di Leo, a screenwriter turned director who really came into his own in 1972 with the film Caliber 9. He spent much of the remaining decade exploring the themes of morally compromised law enforcement and humanity's bloodthirsty nature with such films as The Boss (1973) and Kidnap Syndicate (1975), but perhaps the darkest and most prototypical of his efforts is Shoot First, Die Later (1974).
This particular film would be of major cult significance anyway thanks to the first teaming of Di Leo with actor Luc Merenda, a partnership that would continue with an additional three films including the considerably brighter Nick the Sting (1976). In a sense Merenda could be seen as the Alain Delon to Di Leo's Jean-Pierre Melville, a French filmmaker the director greatly admired and hoped to collaborate with someday. However, Merenda was already established as a star in Italy thanks to his work with another director, Sergio Martino, including the crime classic Violent Professionals and the brutal shocker Torso (both 1973).
Despite its heavy action quotient, Shoot First, Die Later (original title: Il poliziotto marcio) didn't receive a theatrical release in America and only appeared on home video decades later. That may be due to the extreme darkness of its protagonist, police lieutenant Dominic (Merenda), who takes bribes from the local syndicate since he believes the whole system is rigged anyway. His cop father (Salvo Randone) has no idea this is going on, and Dominic (whose name unfortunately got changed to "Dominique" on the most recent video release) even lands a girlfriend, Sandra (Delia Boccardo), whose welfare is soon put into jeopardy.
In keeping with the Italian exploitation tradition, this film lifts more than a few plot points from another source; in this case the unofficial source was Rogue Cop, a hardboiled pulp novel by William P. McGivern officially filmed by MGM in 1954 with Robert Taylor and Janet Leigh. However, the lifting ultimately shifted directions again when William Friedkin made To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), which updates elements from both McGivern's book and this film in particular along with the official source novel by former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich.
Already a familiar name from Di Leo productions was the composer on this film, Luis Bacalov, an Argentina-born composer who got his start on films like Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and the landmark spaghetti western Django (1966). All told Di Leo and Bacalov worked together on a dozen films, with the composer going on to win an Oscar for his work on Il Postino (1994).
A sort of centerpiece to Di Leo's poliziotteschi cycle, this film was followed by a handful of further cop outings before the director embarked on his highly controversial and ill-fated erotic production, To Be Twenty (1978), which effectively marked the end of his mainstream career. He retired completely from filmmaking in 1985, though he lived long enough to see his work enjoy a major reevaluation both in Italy and abroad before his death in 2003. Considering his thoughtful and genial attitude about his work in action films, it's tempting to look at this film's pointed title as a suitable epitaph for Di Leo's entire career as well.
By Nathaniel Thompson
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