THE SEVEN-UPS: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1973) Twilight Time
Roy Scheider dons the guise of an avenging, tough-as-nails New York City detective (modeled on the legendary Sonny Grosso…and he’s no angel!) in Philip D’Antoni’s The Seven-Ups (1973). Grosso is Scheider’s second skin; the movie, something of a hat trick for D’Antoni, whose previous successes as producer included two iconic cop movies from the period: Bullitt (1968) and the multi-Oscar winner, The French Connection (1971). Déjà vu, alas, infiltrates The Seven-Ups like a plague. Despite its verisimilitude, once again based on Grosso’s legitimate case files, gussied up for the screen with minor embellishments, the screenplay by Albert Ruben and Alexander Jacobs builds the entire premise around – what else? – another spectacular car chase, masterfully orchestrated and all full scale, begun through the unfettered and bustling streets of downtown Manhattan and ending with a wham-bang smash-up between a semi and decapitated Pontiac Ventura Custom Sprint coupe on the Palisades Parkway. The virtues of the picture are equally its vices; regurgitated tropes of the seedy crime/cop thriller leading to limited returns during a picture-making era flooded with crime/cop thrillers of a more prepossessing ilk. The Seven-Ups isn’t a bad movie. In fact, removed from its hype and any direct comparisons to D’Antoni’s other masterpieces (or any other cop/chase/detective flicks from its generation) it plays with a gritty, taut economy.
But lest we place The Seven-Ups in its proper context; arriving at the high water mark of a New York City drowning in budgetary crises, the once glittering metropolis reduced to a belabored leviathan, afflicted with the blight of severe urban decay, a spiral into moral turpitude, ineffectual mismanagement of its political clout and city services (Mayor John Lindsay couldn’t even afford to pay waste disposal workers to pick up the mountainous piles of trash ‘literally’ littering the streets), an epidemic of graffiti, and, finally staggering proliferation of crime (an appalling 2,040 murders were committed within the city limits the same year as The Seven-Ups’ premiere, to say nothing of the 135,468 ‘other’ violent crimes committed in ’73). Here then, was a city rife – either for the absolute implosion of society as it was once known or teetering at the precipice of some desperately needed last ditch effort to spark its urban renewal. Police officers everywhere – though especially those refusing to cry ‘uncle’ in this iniquitous hell hole – could hold their heads a little higher after D’Antoni’s The French Connection swept its competition aside during the Oscar race; the blue-walled ‘honorable profession’ earning back a little of its honor. Perhaps, it even acquired a patina of enameled luster to kick-start faith in the grueling work that real cops do.
Urs Furrer’s unapologetic low-key cinematography keeps the tone subdued. You are not watching The Seven-Ups for highly stylized visuals. And yet, some 40+ years removed from its derelict epoch, the picture almost looks artificial, or, at the very least, foreign to fresh eyes. There is a visual grimness to all those steely-blue/grey depictions of misty early dawn rising to envelope the city in a sort of unnatural ennui portending of a deeper malaise. Reportedly, D’Antoni became fascinated by a tale spun by Grosso while the two were still toiling on the set of The French Connection; Grosso, recalling a fifties elite force of detectives ruthlessly going after syndicated crime with a blank check from the city, employing whatever strong-armed tactics worked to achieve the desired results and put assailants away for a minimum of seven years (hence, the title, The Seven-Ups). In tandem, there existed a group of thugs posing as cops, who were involved in the kidnapping of mob bosses, holding them for ransom without reprisals. D’Antoni loved this concept and after The French Connection put all speculation, as per the profitability of such pictures, to rest he pitched the idea to 2oth Century-Fox for ‘another smash hit’.
D’Antoni also orchestrated a deal that allowed him two hats on this pending project, as producer and director. Applying the same principles to The Seven-Ups that had made The French Connection buzz with crude and conspiratorial electricity, D’Antoni would stage most of the picture on location in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Westchester County, and, the biggest sewer of them all - the Bronx. Once again, stunt coordinator and driver, Bill Hickman was brought in to helm the pivotal car chase. “You couldn’t rehearse this stuff,” assistant production manager, Randy Jurgensen later explained, “…because, even though you had cleared everything with the city, once they actually saw what you were proposing to do, they’d never allow you to do it twice. So, we just had the cameras set up and ready to go and you hoped to hell what they captured was the real deal.” For certain, safety was a paramount priority on this shoot; D’Antoni in heavy discussions with his extras, including a group of children playing in the street, and, most certainly, Hickman and veteran Hollywood stunt man, Jerry Summers who would make it all happen with nail-biting intensity. While cameras were installed along the sides of Hickman’s Pontiac Grand Ville sedan and the accompanying Ventura Custom Sprint coupe to capture impromptu ‘reaction’ shots from the actors, who occasionally road shotgun, only Hickman did all of the driving in this sequence; Scheider intermittently exchanged for Summers, who narrowly escaped death with only minor bruises and a broken nose during the penultimate moment when the roof of Scheider’s coupe was sheared off by the low-lying undercarriage of the waiting semi.
Copying Bullitt, D’Antoni pits his two careening cars, with reinforced shock absorbers, down the gradients of uptown New York; Hickman and Summers, literally interjecting their seemingly out-of-control racers into the clusterfuck of mid-day traffic, and, on one occasion, creating a collision, not planned, with a parked car. Mercifully, no injuries occurred. But the white-knuckled concentration with which this sequence rapidly unfolds to its inevitable wreck along the highway cannot be overstated. As with the chases staged in D’Antoni’s previous films, this one raises the blood pressure several notches for the very fact it is all happening in real time on actual streets, populated with real traffic jams and pedestrians scrambling to get out of the way of yet another cinematic deluge. At the end of the shoot, D’Antoni breathed a sigh of relief. Although the chase is situated dead center in the movie’s plot, D’Antoni possessed the wherewithal to shoot it dead last on his schedule, to cover the very real prospect of incurring injuries. Also, at the end, both cars were totaled and ready for the scrap heap; hence, no retakes. When the last strip of film was in the can, D’Antoni handed over nearly an hour of raw chase footage to editor extraordinaire, Gerald ‘Jerry’ B. Greenberg (another of the alumni from The French Connection) to pare it to barely 10 minutes of jaw-dropping action.
If only D’Antoni had paid a bit more attention to the rest of the story he might have had a really great movie on his hands. But at barely 103 min. The Seven-Ups just feels twice as long as it remains half as engrossing on plot. It also plays, at times, like a grotesque cheat and/or thematic retread on hallowed asphalt already paved in The French Connection. At its crux, The Seven-Ups is a tale of boyhood betrayal; rough-around-the-edges NYPD detective, Buddy Manucci (Roy Scheider) used by his mob informant, Vito Lucia (Tony Lo Bianco) whom he, in fact, is also exploiting for information. Under this very thin veneer of ‘dog-eat-dog’ is an unsettling and tragic bro-mantic chemistry; the careworn Buddy, cruel in his admiration for the dapper felon. Neither ‘has it all’ – Vito, struggling with an ill-wife, Rose (whom we never see) and Buddy, destined to remain wed to the artery-clogging adrenaline rush of his work – a void no woman could ever satisfy. Interestingly, early on in The Seven-Ups’ preliminary stages, Tony Lo Bianco, almost as big a name as Roy Scheider then, overheard D’Antoni asking his casting agent to ‘get him a Lo Bianco type’; the actor immediately jumping at the opportunity to present his director with the real thing instead of a reasonable facsimile.
Buddy belongs to an elite force of crime busters known as The Seven-Ups. Comprised of as much brainpower as thug muscle, this motley crew operate under the radar with the complicity of Inspector Gilson (Rex Everhart). Despite the strenuous objections of Lt. Hanes (Robert Burr), Gilson is willing to overlook the group’s strong-armed tactics because, for better or worse, they get results. Buddy’s team includes Barelli (Victor Arnold), Mingo (Jerry Leon) and Ansel (Ken Kercheval). After Don Ellis’ somewhat over the top main title orchestrations we meet the Seven-Ups, busting a counterfeit syndicate operating under the guise of a fairly posh downtown Manhattan antiques dealer. Despite another good collar, Lt. Hanes expresses his grave concerns to Inspector Gilson. His objections are dismissed outright. Meanwhile, in another part of town, bookmaker and mafioso, Max Kalish (Larry Haines) is in for a bad time; kidnapped by a pair of goons, the psychopath, Moon (Richard Lynch) and cool-headed Bo (Bill Hickman) upon leaving his clandestine hotel rendezvous to accept another big payoff. For days, the mob boss is held against his will until his ransom is paid. Eventually, Kalish is let loose in a remote area, virtually unharmed. Meanwhile, Moon and Vito secretly meet at the Botanical Gardens to exchange the payoff for this latest kidnapping. It is a lucrative deal to be sure – one of many Vito has kept from Buddy, even as he continues to inform on some others in organized crime to keep the Seven-Ups busy with plenty of action.
There is an unspoken bro-mantic chemistry between Vito and Buddy. The two are seen reminiscing about their shared childhood, school days and better times when the world was a lot simpler for them to figure out. Is it all smoke screen and mirrors now or strictly legit? Hmmm. In the meantime, other white-collar made men begin to suffer similar fates. The mood turns dark and ugly after Buddy, Barelli and Mingo stake out Lucia’s Funeral Home, using Ansel as a plant amongst the chauffeur class. Regrettably, Ansel’s wire gets exposed. He is dragged into the backroom mortuary, beaten to a pulp by Kalish’s men (who mistake him as working for another crime syndicate) and tossed into the boot of an unmarked car to be driven a few blocks to a parking garage managed by Toredano (Joe Spinell). Unable to get Ansel on his walkie-talkie, Buddy realizes something has gone terribly awry. He orders Mingo to tail the exiting funeral procession in the hopes of spotting Ansel chauffeuring one of the cars. But no, their partner is nowhere to be found. Remembering the solitary car driven by Bo, with Moon riding shotgun, Buddy and Barelli tail them to the parking garage. Alas, everyone panics, and in the ensuing gunfire Ansel, barely conscious and trying to crawl out of the trunk, is shot dead.
Buddy pursues Bo and Moon. They lead him on a harrowing car chase through the crowded downtown streets. Buddy orders a roadblock ahead. But Bo smashes through this barricade and drives over the George Washington Bridge, evading Buddy by forcing his car off the road. Buddy plows into the back of a parked semi, narrowly escaping decapitation. At the hospital, Buddy is informed that Carmine Coltello (Lou Polan), badly wounded in the garage gun battle, has nevertheless survived his injuries while Ansel has not. There is barely time to grief as Gilson and Haines confront Buddy with questions about the Seven-Ups involvement in these mafia kingpin kidnappings. Perhaps the boys were earning a little extra something on the side. Buddy is mortified. Returning to the precinct, he takes Toredano into custody and after several hours of solitary confinement, orders him brought out for questioning. But Toredano won’t talk, showing Buddy his crippled hands and suggesting that if such torture previously inflicted by the cops could not make him give up his cronies, no such tactics Buddy could cook up on the spot now will suffice either.
Vito returns to the docks to confront Moon. Their alliance must be dissolved. Vito informs Moon the man he shot at the garage was not another hood from a rival syndicate, but a cop. The whole city is out looking for Ansel’s killer. Vito order Moon to disappear. Meanwhile, Buddy pieces together clues to the mysterious kidnappings, depriving Coltello of badly needed oxygen at the hospital to get him to rat on Max Kalish. Buddy also realizes all of the names on his list of usual suspects, supplied by Vito, are equally the men kidnapped and blackmailed for ransom. Vito is the ringmaster. What would it take to bring him in? A better revenge – what would it take to bring him down? Perhaps, leak his name on the street and let all the various mafiosos still in the dark about their kidnappers have their way with him. Returning to their special meeting place for one last time, Buddy lets Vito know he has figured out the ruse. Now, his dirty alliance with Vito has cost Ansel his life. There is no turning back. As a legitimately tearful Vito begs for forgiveness, as he knows very well his exposure will surely mean being fitted for a pair of cement shoes in the near future, a pitiless Buddy storms off, leaving his one-time cohort to contemplate the error of his ways.
The Seven-Ups is a fairly intelligent variation on the time-honored tradition of the crime thriller. The problem is it isn’t unique enough to triumph over the memory of its two predecessors, nor half as original to stand on its own even if you have never seen either Bullitt or The French Connection. The picture’s entire premise is built around the need to stage another epic – if thoroughly exhilarating – car chase. Again, the racing sequences are a miracle of set-piece staging and editing. Props and kudos to D’Antoni and his behind-the-scenes crew for carrying it off. But one car chase isn’t enough to carry the picture. Worse, the Ruben/Jacobs’ screenplay is simultaneously one-dimensional while managing, even more inexplicably, to muddy the narrative waters to the point where we sincerely wonder what the hell is going on until very late in the movie. Roy Scheider’s performance is good – but generic. We have seen him do a variation on Sonny Grosso before – and arguably, better, in The French Connection. He is not playing a character, per say; rather, to type. The script calls for a tough/aloof detective with more cunning than brains; so, that is exactly what we get. It works – sort of – but again, reveals virtually nothing about the man in character. There is nothing going on behind this façade. In the end, The Seven-Ups is a disposable entertainment; good for a gander, though not much else.
Twilight Time has let loose The Seven-Ups on Blu-ray. This disc will surely delight many a fan. The 1080p transfer has been culled from remarkably clean source material, expertly restored and presented with all Urs Furrer’s gritty underlay of inner city dreck on full display. Shot under natural lighting conditions, colors are subdued, offering a genuine realism to permeate and condemn the times. Film grain is represented correctly; no digitized grit that afflicted a goodly portion of The French Connection’s Blu-ray transfer. The Seven-Ups looks fairly spectacular with one minor caveat. Contrast is just a tad weaker than anticipated. There are no true blacks; only variations of tonal gray (milky and muddy) that, at times, get very close to becoming velvety rich and deep. It’s not a deal breaker, folks. The 1.0 DTS audio is fairly engaging with decided limitations. Don Ellis’ score sounds just a tad too pronounced, but otherwise untainted.
Extras on this disc are exceptionally plentiful, even for a TT release. In fact, they veer into Criterion Collection comprehensiveness; starting with a perfunctory ‘introduction’ by D’Antoni. Aside: I really don’t see the point to this; D’Antoni basically saying “Here’s my movie. Watch it.” Better news ahead: we get two scores on two different isolated tracks: Don Ellis’, used in the final cut, and another from Johnny Mandel, rejected outright by D’Antoni before mixing could even begin. Film historian Richard Harlan Smith weighs in with an engrossing audio commentary, and, D’Antoni returns in an almost half-hour featurette to wax affectionately about the process of making the movie. His instant recall is remarkable. We also get some detailed interviews from Tony Lo Bianco and Randy Jergensen, plus featurettes on staging the car chase and making the movie. Finally, a slew of vintage junkets, ranging from the fascinating ‘Anatomy of a Chase’ to idiotically assembled stills, lobby cards and ‘other media’ (basically two show boxes for the 16mm ‘home video’ release), plus theatrical trailers and TV spots. Bottom line: while I was not all that impressed with The Seven-Ups as an entertainment, I can sincerely admire the effort put forth on this Blu-ray release. Nicely put together, this kit. If you love this movie, you’ll want this disc. It’s perfect!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)