Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Seven-Ups

The Seven-Ups (1973)
Dir. Philip D’Antoni
Written: Albert Ruben, Alexander Jacobs
Starring Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Larry Haines, Richard Lynch, and Joe Spinelli


"They take the third degree of step further," says the tagline. Which i guess means car chases?

THE SEVEN-UPS is another one of those gritty crime films they had in the 70s, made by a lot of the same folks who did THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but without Gene Hackman or William Friedkin or the same writer. It has some of the same elements (over-the-line cops, grimy New York locales, fantastic high-speed chase, Roy Scheider) but not quite the artistry to reach the lofty standard set by its predecessor, which is probably why it’s less-remembered today.

It’s sort of a shame, though, because honestly it’s pretty great in its own right. Scheider plays the head of a police division that targets major criminals (whose conviction will bring a sentence of seven years and up, hence the name) using controversial methods like going undercover and having high-speed chases*. He gets his intel from his childhood friend (Tony Lo Bianco,THE FRENCH CONNECTION, GOD TOLD ME TO KILL) who never quite made it out of the hood. Everything seems to be working fine for the Seven-Ups until major Jewish mobsters begin to get kidnapped and ransomed back by a mysterious duo (Richard Lynch, also GOD TOLD ME TO KILL and stuntman Bill Hickman, who also coordinated the film’s action). Investigating these mysterious inter-underworld crimes leads to a convoluted series of complications, car chases, shootouts, etc.

Let me get that for you.

The movie’s biggest weakness is its lax first half, which is one agonizingly long setup of the various characters and parties that will eventually come together and form a plot.  Obviously there’s nothing wrong with a movie that takes its time to introduce the characters before getting to the action (in fact, I encourage it) but way too much time is spent on boring details that don’t turn out to be important anyway, such as the inner working of the Jewish mafia guys, the office politics at the police station, and the setup to the vaguely related stakeout that gets the Seven-Ups involved in the first place. It just takes what should be a stark, elegantly simple story and clutters it up with characters and plots that don’t pay off. And even with all this time spent, there’s almost no real character development for Scheider or his colleagues.

Fortunately, at about the halfway point, everything finally comes together and the plot takes off like Scheider’s 1973 Pontiac Ventura Sprint coupe. It dispenses with all the unimportant baggage from the first half and becomes the sleek revenge flick it ought to have been from the beginning. And that’s where the film’s big revered car chase scene comes in. Pursuing two suspects, Scheider recklessly drives across what seems like most of New York and New Jersey. Although Director D’Antoni (producer on BULLIT and THE FRENCH CONNECTION, with this being his sole directorial credit) was clearly hoping to top his previous work in those films, the action itself may be slightly less overwhelming here in terms of pure stunt work and setpieces. But if there’s nothing as holy-shit viscerally stunning as Hackman’s famous sprint under the subway in FRENCH CONNECTION or Bullit’s car bouncing along San Franciso’s hills, this chase may be my favorite of all of them due to it’s awesome build and the fine work of editor Jerry Greenberg. It starts out a little pedestrian, and seems to be nearing its end several times only to suddenly escalate further. Lynch and Hickman make a great villainous pair, and the added emotional charge helps ratchet up the tension as they make one narrow escape after another, just barely slipping through their pursuers’ fingers.

Epic car chars are the #1 cause of sidewalk fruit businesses failing.

The film is (rightly) famous mostly for that chase, but it has a few other fine sequences as well. There’s a money exchange in a car wash which again benefits from Greenberg’s fine editing and emerges as a tense, ingenious use of a clever gimmick. There’s a nicely morally ambiguous sequence where Joe Spinelli (scumbag lawyer in VIGILANTE, scumbag thug in EUREKA and this) demonstrates his unwillingness to cooperate with the cops even under threat of torture. And the relationship between Scheider and Lo Bianco is an interesting one, relying on Lo Bianco’s nuanced and sympathetic characterization juxtaposed with Scheider’s hard-nosed relentlessness. The film ends on a scene between these two which is emotionally complex and intense in a very different way than most of the rest of the film.

Both IMDB and wikipedia claim that the film is a spin-off of FRENCH CONNECTION (with Scheider’s Russo character “renamed” Buddy Manucci in this one, whatever that means) and it’s easy to see the link between the two films, but I actually like that this one has some subtle differences. Even though the Seven-Ups supposedly only go after high-value targets (like Fernando Rey’s character from FRENCH CONNECTION) they’re not exactly seeking international crime lords**. More like local small-scale crime bosses who have nice houses but are not exactly threatening the foundations of our society. And the guys who end up causing them the most trouble are just a pair of lowlife hoods who are actually preying on the same demographic the Seven-Ups are supposed to be targeting.

So in a way, there’s a more human street-level vibe here. New York is a big place, but this film seems to take place mostly in neighborhoods and communities where everyone knows each other -- Scheider and Lo Bianco’s shared childhood illustrates that fact especially succinctly, but we also see Scheider walking around his old haunts and being greeted warmly by literally everyone he meets. Everyone’s part of the same big, dysfunctional family. The stakes are smaller her, but they feel more intimate, more personal. D’Antoni’s use of thoroughly lived-in real New York locations helps anchor the characters in a real human landscape where they seem thoroughly organic and at home. D’Antoni might not have quite the ferocity of William Freidkin, but he’s crafted something here which has its own unique merits. Plus a really fucking boss car chase.


*obviously, the over-the-line cop trope has evolved somewhat since then. Scheider’s use of “unconventional methods” seem altogether quaint by today’s standards.


**One way this movie is unusual is that it’s sold so heavily on the “Seven-ups” gimmick of a group of detectives going after major criminals with dirty methods -- and none of those elements is really a significant part of the final film. They’re all in there, but more as background details than significant story points. We hear about the squad and what it does, but mostly it’s just Scheider in the film, and he’s mostly just trying to get revenge against these two particular guys. I guess he does use some dirty methods like threatening an old man in his own bed, but its pretty tame by modern standards and not an especially big part of the plot anyway.

2 comments:

  1. Just saw this one...man, that was a boring movie. Maybe for the time, watching guys watch a building for minutes on end was exciting, but sure isn't today. And I like slow paced movies, but there's no characterization...it's no better than any generic Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris movie. The chase was pretty good, but again...mostly it's cars driving in straight lines down streets. The second half gets better when they actually get into the guys using some strategies, but there's no interaction in the car with the two thugs, which might have added some drama. As is, this movie is just straight up pedestrian.

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  2. Joe -- Well, I definitely agree that almost the whole first half is pretty agonizing. It's slow going without the reward of any interesting drama or character growth, which is pretty hard to take. I got back on board with the second half, though, which moves much faster and has some fun sequences (you're right that there's not much stunt work in the big car chase, but I do admit that I like how it gradually builds suspense as it goes on and on. It keeps seeming like the cops have them for sure, and then suddenly they'll manage to get away again). Probably not the classic it ought to have been, but for me it's got some unique pleasures.

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