Philip D’Antoni is arguably one of the most influential figures in 1970s’ American cinema. His influence extends beyond the 1970s, beyond the medium of film and out into the basic iconography of western culture. D’Antoni is one of the architects of our vision of New York, and yet he only ever directed one film.
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This film, The Seven-Ups…
D’Antoni is best known for his work as a producer and in particular his work with a series of gritty crime thrillers including Peter Yates’ Bullitt (1968), and William Friedkin’s Oscar-winning The French Connection (1971). At one time he even owned the rights to Friedkin’s infamous Cruising (1980), a film about a murder investigation set amidst the 1970s’ New York gay scene. These films have come to be associated with a certain strand of gritty American realist cinema. Films in which renegade oddball cops find themselves trapped between supremely competent criminals and supremely incompetent police bureaucrats who spend their time hauling detectives into their office even though the detectives get results (damn it!).
Think of Roy Schneider and Gene Hackman’s weird back-alley interrogation techniques, think of Pacino screaming “Attica! Attica!” outside a bank, and you have D’Antoni’s medium of choice: gritty realism heightened and exaggerated to the point of stylisation. Gritty realism full of trash-strewn alleyways and decaying infrastructure: ‘gritty realism’ as genre. However, while D’Antoni is most closely associated with the gritty police thriller, his real genre of choice was the car chase movie.
Though quite closely allied to the crime thriller, the car chase film – which also includes works such as Halicki’s Gone In 60 Seconds (1974), and Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980) – traditionally uses a police investigation as a framing device for a series of spectacular set-pieces involving cars, trucks and other vehicles. D’Antoni is most famous for producing two of the greatest car chase movies of all time in Bullitt, and The French Connection, but The Seven-Ups saw him step behind the camera himself.
The Seven-Ups revolves around a group of oddball police detectives who use unconventional tactics in order to secure long prison sentences for criminals who have proved remarkably resistant to prosecution. These tactics may draw scorn from the more politically-minded members of the police force who are ever-aware of fickle public opinion, but their undeniable efficiency and popularity amongst the rank and file mean that the seven-ups cannot be touched. Cannot be touched, that is, until something goes disastrously wrong.
In command of the seven-ups is Buddy Manucci (Schneider), a brutal but clever cop who uses his links to the Italian community to keep track of the movers and shakers in the New York underworld. His main point of contact is local undertaker Vito Lucia (Tony Lo Bianco) who, unbeknownst to Manucci, is also the man behind a series of audacious kidnappings in which a pair of thugs pass themselves off as police officers in order to snatch high-ranking criminals from their homes and hold them to ransom.
One day, the seven-ups are staking out Lucia’s funeral parlour when one of the cops is identified just as Lucia’s thugs are about to snatch a local gangster. In a terrible mix-up, the thugs kill the seven-up and Manucci is called before his boss. Now he has to capture the thugs in order to get revenge and keep his team together. Cue exquisitely filmed car chase.
The Seven-Ups is quite clearly an attempt by D’Antoni to rebottle the lightning that struck so forcefully in the case of the critically acclaimed Bullitt and French Connection. This attempt is certainly successful on a technical level as The Seven-Ups exudes the same aura of technical competence and style that surrounds both of its more famous forebears. This aura of craftsmanship is due in no small part to the fact that The Seven-Ups boasts many of the same technical specialists and advisors as The French Connection.
For example, the film’s central car chase benefits as much from Jerry Greenberg’s editing as it does from Bill Hickman’s extraordinary stunt driving. Both French Connection alumni, Hickman and Greenberg bring to The Seven-Ups the same visual panache that won Greenberg an Oscar. Also returning from The French Connection was Salvatore ‘Sonny’ Grosso – the former NYPD detective whose real-life exploits and style inspired both the film and the book of The French Connection – and jazz composer Don Ellis, whose use of weird time signatures and unsettling sound-scapes brings a real sense of atmosphere to what is ultimately a somewhat anaemic piece of filmmaking.
Where The Seven-Ups ultimately fails – and where it differs from both Bullitt and The French Connection – is in the baldness of its pretence. While both Bullitt and The French Connection are films built around car-based stunts, the bits between the set-pieces are meaty enough that they can hold both your attention and your emotional involvement on their own terms. Think of the ways in which Bullitt’s cinematography – all angular industrial corridors and antiseptic hospital rooms – reflects McQueen’s cold and detached character. Think of the surreal nature of Schneider and Hackman’s attitude to authority, and you have films anchored not just in some generic notion of the real world but in a vision of the real world that is both colourful and unique.
The Seven-Ups is a film sadly lacking in uniqueness as its plot, characters, dialogue, cinematography and structure all feel intensely familiar. Schneider’s character is a pale copy of the character he played in The French Connection who, shorn of a partner to spark against or even a love-interest to dally with, never feels like anything more than a vehicle for the plot. Even the subplot involving a childhood friend turned informant turned criminal mastermind feels sadly undercooked, as the scenes that Lo Bianco and Schneider share lack memorable dialogue or that whip-crack of emotional verisimilitude. There is no betrayal here. There is no breach of truth. There is only a creaking plot device.
Simply put, The Seven-Ups feels, in the words of Tolkien, like too little butter scraped over a piece of toast. It is a film that tries so hard to repeat the successes of other films that it never bothers to acquire its own identity. However, while The Seven-Ups may fail as a work of serious cinema, this does not necessarily mean that it is a bad film. It is just dumb.
So dumb, in fact, that it completely fails to engage the higher functions of the brain. One watches it almost at a subconscious level. It is a film that deals solely with the limbic system leaving your higher cortical functions free to organise your day, ponder what to have for dinner or worry about the state of the economy. If you like car crashes and rogue cops who get results (damn it!) then there are definitely worse ways of spending 99 minutes than by watching The Seven-Ups.
This DVD release of The Seven-Ups comes with a trailer as its sole extra, which is a real pity considering that the region one DVD release from 2006 evidently included a rather spiffing making-of documentary filled with behind-the-scenes footage.