It may be the best car chase of all time. The other night, when I re-watched The Seven-Ups for the first time in at least twenty years, I was struck immediately by how completely it drew me back into its place and time. Roy Scheider, dressed like a businessman, is pacing in front of the Chock Full O'Nuts lunchroom on 42nd Street. It is New York City circa 1972, gloriously brash, cheap, dirty, dynamic, and exciting all at once. By the time Scheider and his team (called Seven-Ups because the crimes they investigate carry sentences of seven years or more) bust some counterfeiters in a jewellery store, it was like I was 21 again, and I was THERE!
The Seven Ups was produced and directed by Philip D'Antoni, who had produced The French Connection, and it exists basically to reproduce the thrills of that film, namely dirty New York, grimy cops, and a car chase. Scheider plays a character named Buddy, just as he did in The French Connection. He's obsessed, and the car chase, which we'll get to in a moment, reflects his obsession.
The other things I remembered were a brilliant little scene from Joe Spinell, when the Seven Ups are about to pound a confession out of him, and he shows them his mis-shaped fingers and tells them to go ahead an hurt him, he won't talk. Spinell plays a guy helping the movie's pair of villains; I recalled how perfectly matched Bill Hickman and Richard Lynch were, playing Moon and Bo. Lynch is the guy who burned himself while tripping on LSD, turning him from handsome leading man wannabee to bizarre villain. Hickman, who also was the stunt driver for this film, and The French Connection, and Bullit, simply looks more like a hard-boiled thug than anyone I can think of; how he never got cast in a Parker movie, or as Parker, is beyond me.
Hickman not only choreographed the Seven-Ups chase scene, but drove the lead car. It was filmed on the Taconic Parkway, and the ending, with the auto-decapitation, does indeed deliver the payoff D'Antoni wanted. But underneath the action, the movie is really about betrayal. The story comes from Sonny Grosso, who was the real cop Scheider played in The French Connection (and that's Grosso with the beard delivering the funny money in the first scene). Grosso, who went on to become a producer (of Pee Wee's Playhouse, among other things), was himself targeted in police corruption investigations—they were the subject of a book he co-wrote, Point Blank (not the Richard Stark one!) and a film which he co-produced, A Question Of Honor, based on that book, with its screenplay written by Budd Schulberg. Given that subtext, it's no surprise that, along with obsession, loyalty and betrayal should be at its core.
As in The French Connection, Tony LoBianco plays the neighbourhood guy with big ideas, but this time he and Scheider are childhood friends, and he thinks Lo Bianco is his stoolie. Their final scene, when the extent of betrayal is confronted, was one I remembered vividly as soon as I saw it again, and still is powerful. Urs Furrer's photography is the epitome of dirty seventies urban, and the film also boasts an outstanding score by the jazz trumpeter Don Ellis—fast-paced, punchy, discordant, sharp-edged: it helps drive the film with the same manic energy as Scheider and the cars.
His Seven-Ups are well cast too: Jerry Leon as Mingo in particular, whose characterisation seemed to have homage paid to it by Paul Butler in the TV series Crime Story. There's also a pre-Dallas Ken Kercheval as Ansel, one of those characters whose fate you can predict as soon as he walks into a scene.
I mentioned Crime Story, and it would not surprise me at all to learn Michael Mann admired this film, and that it didn't, in some ways, make its way into a number of his own movies. I was pleased The Seven-Ups held up so well, and amazed at how fully it drew me back into its world.