The French Connection‘s spiritual successor completed the new direction in cop films begun by Bullitt.
For as much as Bullitt presaged and The French Connection ushered in a new era of violent, realistic police procedural movies, 1973′s The Seven-Ups took that gritty baton and ran with it, bringing a depth of character and dramatic pathos to its narrative that, by and large, those earlier films had little interest in developing. A tough and morally complicated story with a deep melancholy at its heart, the film isn’t just a copy or derivative of its predecessors’ more successful tropes (though it shares many of them), it’s also a more mature and well-rounded work of filmmaking. And for those reasons, many will find it a more rewarding viewing experience.
Smll wonder, considering the shared talent involved. Produced and directed by Philip D’Antoni, who had previously produced both The French Connection as well as Bullitt, The Seven-Ups featured a story by NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, whom star Roy Scheider had played in The French Connection. The film’s crew included Bill Hickman, who had orchestrated the car chases of both earlier films as stunt coordinator, as well as music by Don Ellis, whose French Connection soundtrack won a Grammy. Finally, both Scheider and co-star Tony Lo Bianco returned in similar roles to their French Connection originals, playing respectively a rogue cop and scheming low-level mobster. Hickman also had a small part as a hired goon, a shift from playing that film’s doomed federal agent Mulderig.
For all that shared talent, it’s tempting to under-value The Seven-Ups as a cash-in to its predecessors’ immense popularity. The 1970s were an age of quick, cheap sequels that did little justice to their inspiration, all too often made hurriedly while the first film remained fresh in the pubic awareness. Yet The Seven-Ups’ elaborate plot, rooted as it was in character and police culture, belie such an easy dismissal. Scheider plays Bobby Manucci, leader of an elite ”dirty tricks” squad of detectives who orchestrate sting operations that facilitate arrests by the conventional police. The rank and file cops see Manucci’s group – named because their sting arrests are guaranteed to bring at least seven years in prison – as dangerous compromises of police tradition and morality. The squad keeps to itself, not especially close to their colleagues or even with one another. A leader by example, Manucci builds the group’s intelligence with a wallet full of mug shots of known gangsters combined with hearsay from childhood friend Vito Lucia (Lo Bianco), now a working-class wiseguy with a wife and children.
What Manucci doesn’t suspect of his old friend forms the crux of the film’s tension. Though supplying him with information, Lucia is using Manucci’s wallet file to target upper-level mobsters and loan sharks for kidnapping by two thugs (Hickman and Richard Lynch) that pose as police to bypass their victims’ guard. The mobsters are ransomed off but seethe with hostility towards the police, and when one of the Seven-Ups is caught while conducting undercover surveillance a twist of fate ends in his murder at the hands of Lucia’s men. What follows is the film’s intense chase sequence, an effort that must surely have been D’Antoni and Hickman’s conscious effort to top The French Connection‘s landmark car-vs.-train set piece.
The sequence was shot in Uptown New York, down crowded city streets and busy thoroughfares. Its higher ambition obviously lacks the novelty of Bullitt or The French Connection, but its sheer technical bravado makes for intense viewing. And like those other film’s sequences it improves with repeated viewing, when new camera angles and details come into better focus.
Scheider plays Manucci much as he played The French Connection‘s Buddy Russo, but minus Gene Hackman’s scene-swallowing screen presence his intense reserve and brooding intelligence hold the story’s center by virtue of its moral ambivalence. Always an actor who understood the importance of not revealing everything, Scheider often seems more dangerous than other action stars of the period simply by remaining aloof. The realization that his lifelong friend has betrayed him plays out entirely in his eyes, as a scene in which their back and forth movement slows to a stop, indicating Manucci’s cold determination.
Yet Manucci never suffers for want of ruthlessness. Following the death of their compatriot he leads the remaining Seven-Ups on a midnight raid to a mobster’s home, threatening the gangster’s wife while holding a gun to the man’s face. Later, he coaxing information from a hospitalized mafioso by repeatedly removing his oxygen hose. The final shootout, set in what must have been the ugliest vacant lot in New York, is nasty, brutal, and merciless, while the denouement meeting between Manucci and Lucia makes a grim a comment on justice as opposed to legal procedure.
The film is not without its flaws. The hard-to-follow plot at times gets lost in the gritty atmosphere. Important plot points that bear further explanation (character movements, exposition that establishes characters’ relations to one another) are skimmed over, so that first-time viewing can provoke some searching-back and reviewing of key scenes to clarify story movement. In particular, the opening set piece in which Manucci and his men set up a sting against counterfeiters never quite comes together as much as it should; Lucia’s exact stature and position within the Mob also remains frustratingly nebulous.
But the film completes a growth set in motion by Bullitt and continued through The French Connection: whereas the former was about innovation and the latter about realism, both at the expense of conventional audience expectations, The Seven Ups infuses its main character with depth and angst. Unlike Frank Bullitt’s glacial self-confidence or Popeye Doyle’s fiery self-justifying rage, Manucci is troubled by self-doubt and self-recrimination. He tortures criminals but approaches his superiors with a trepidation born of doubt. He exacts revenge for his subordinate’s death, yet betrayal even to avenge betrayal leaves him resolved but miserable. The film’s frozen last image suggests as much: ”You can’t do this to me, Buddy!” Lucia protests, as Manucci prepares to rat him out to the gangsters he kidnapped. “You watch me!” Manucci retorts, before storming away in guilt and shame as the camera fades to black.
Friday we’ll have seven more classic crime films of the gritty 70s. Please join us then.
- Michael Kabel