Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Producer Philip D'Antoni gave crime pix a big shot in the arm with 1968's Bullitt, a detective-vs-the-mob story that pared dialogue to a minimum, gave Steve McQueen a definitive role and upped the ante for the violent car chase as a spectator sport. The French Connection is a distinctive William Friedkin picture but it stayed close to the D'Antoni formula, with a major car chase opening up the third act. The Seven-Ups may be the lesser cinematic achievement of the three films but it is possibly the best of the crime action flicks of the early 1970's -- it's a consistently convincing, gritty little drama, and its central car chase may be the best of all for simple credibility.
NYC detective Buddy Manucci (Roy Scheider) runs the "Seven-Ups," a five-man detail that uses clever means to bust serious felons, the ones that might be put away for seven years and upward. Buddy's showboat methods earn disapproval when it appears that cops are kidnapping big-time gangsters for ransom -- department politicos are too hasty to suspect his unit. Buddy confers with his main snitch and childhood pal Vito Lucia, an undertaker, but he seems to know nothing. Meanwhile, brazen thugs Moon and Bo (Richard Lynch and Bill Hickman) are continuing to shake down the racketeers with their kidnapping scheme.
The Seven-Ups is an extremely smart New York cop picture and one of the best among a slew of good and bad work in the first half of the 1970s: Badge 373, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Across 110th Street. It's possibly Roy Scheider's best film, a major step upward from playing Gene Hackman's pal in The French Connection. Albert Ruben and Alexander Jacobs' tight screenplay uses a minimum of exposition before, during and after action scenes. He starts the movie by introducing the Seven-Ups busting a scheme to run a smuggling operation based out of a Manhattan antiques store. We think Scheider is a rich patron until he and another team member pretending to be a water delivery man start tearing the place up like Laurel & Hardy. That pattern is repeated through the first half of the film. New characters and elements are introduced without explanation, but if we simply wait until the next scene comes up we find out who they were and what was going on. It keeps us on our toes without becoming a frustrating experience.
Scheider's Manucci is doing his best to do smart police work using a well-placed snitch, Tony Lo Bianco's Vito, undertaker to the mob. But things don't make sense. The key mobsters they tail seem to disappear. Then Manucci sees a kidnapping of a crooked bail bondsman with his own eyes, by men claiming to be cops. One of them is played by genre favorite Richard Lynch.
The Seven-Ups launches into and sustains its high-powered action with only a couple of breaks for obligatory scenes of disapproving superiors. No home life is depicted for any of the cops, an aspect that only a few years before was an essential: Both Bullitt and Madigan focused strongly on frustrated wives or uncomprehending girlfriends. The lack of 'dramatic' distraction allows us to concentrate on the action on the street, with dogged cops, panicked criminals and an elite shakedown team that makes clever use of badges and a cooperative carwash.
The main action set pieces grow out of one another. A tense situation builds when Ansel, one of Manucci's squad (Ken Kercheval) pretends to be a chauffeur at a mob funeral and gets caught carrying a wire. Ansel's teammates don't understand when he suddenly disappears from the funeral procession; they track him down to a parking garage run by a slimy character played by Joe Spinell (The Godfather, Taxi Driver). That launches the no-limits car chase through the city streets.
As pointed out in a short-subject on the stunt scenes for The Seven-Ups (included on the disc), producer-director D'Antoni's main collaborator is a wild man named Bill Hickman, a stuntman and actor easily recognized as the driver of the Green muscle car that does battle with Steve McQueen's Mustang in Bullitt. Hickman makes this particular chase one of the best ever. We were shocked in Bullitt to see cars really racing flat-out on the streets of San Francisco, expensive scenes that clearly required a secure lock-down of two or three city blocks at a time. The The Seven-Ups isn't as dynamic or flamboyant as the two earlier D'Antoni chase scenes, but it's perhaps the most convincing. Pursuing the kidnapping thugs, Scheider's car goes as fast as one would dare go on city streets, perhaps a bit too fast. Several cars are sideswiped on the way out of town while the crooks manage to crash a roadblock and sucker a cop car into running itself off the road. It ends out on the open highway like Bullitt but with an unforgettably violent finish. It's all the more shocking when we find out there was a driver in the pursuing car throughout the sequence, even the final shot.
The Seven-Ups' plot boils down to a major betrayal, with just enough male bonding angst to make its tough-guy finish an appropriate epitaph for the bad guy. The most interesting thing about the movie, however, is how easily we accept the Seven-Ups' vigilante methods, when the opposition kills one of their members. They threaten Joe Spinnell's lowlife with torture and invade a mobster's bedroom to threaten he and his wife with guns. Ordered to stand down, Manucci's group instead goes wild to break the case. There's no debate in the film and we don't object either. Although cop movies since The French Connection have championed police lawlessness to win audience approval, it's still dead wrong ... if one thinks of the crimes and suffering abetted or commited by the charismatic cops in L.A. Confidential, they all belong behind bars, even the "heroes."
The books say that the early 70s cop cycle burned out when people got sick of seeing grainy location movies with too much violence and not enough story. The Blaxploitation subgenre also warped the genre away from realism into different forms of fantasy. I like to think, however, that Steven Spielberg announced the end of the 70s cop film (and the beginning of the high-concept adventure thriller) two years later in Jaws . Roy Scheider returns as a NY cop who's opted to leave the mean streets to police a quiet tourist hamlet in Massachusetts. He knows how to handle thugs and street crooks but meets his match against the ocean and a monster shark. Faced with the giant creature cruising past his boat, Scheider loads his trusty .357 magnum and empties it into the shark's head. Every shot hits. No effect. It's the equivalent of "I guess we aren't in Kansas anymore" -- the gritty cop thrills are over and now we have to deal with monsters, aliens and ghosts.
Fox's DVD of The Seven-Ups is a very welcome disc; this is one picture that looks fresh even when seen every couple of years. The fine enhanced transfer bests grainy theatrical prints and looks much better than the 16mm eyesores that used to be run on television. The audio is also sharper, with subtitles to help out when a line is read too fast.
The featurette mentioned above shows the filming of much of the chase scene in detail, demonstrating how dangerous it all really was. According to the IMDB, stunt legend Bill Hickman was James Dean's racing pal, and was the first one on the scene of his fatal crash in 1955.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Seven-Ups rates:
Supplements: 1973 featurette on the car chase.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 18, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson