One can argue the car chase genre formally began with Bullitt (1968), starring Steve McQueen, an angry Ford Mustang, and producer Philip D'Antoni, and it's never really gone out of style when the act of seeing a car in motion - screeching around corners, plowing through vegetable stands, going airborne after a road hump - and peripheral carnage give editors and directors a chance to create a montage showpiece that's guaranteed to grab audiences, and deliver a moment people will talk about (and bring in further moviegoers).
D'Antoni knew he could push the nascent car chase genre, and while The French Connection (1971) was based on a book about drug smuggling, sticking one of the most dangerous car chases ever filmed into the narrative didn't muck up the story. It also established a genre that pretty much existed to see cars in combat on roads and highways like Siamese fighting fish; in the end (and to audiences' delight), one of the two has to get smashed to smithereens.
Smash-ups-over-substance have also yielded flat crime dramas like Henri Verneuil's The Burglars (1971), while the car chase also became a standard ingredient in the James Bond franchise. But before filmmakers like H.B. Halicki created the ultimate car chase film in Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), producer D'Antoni came back to the genre with The Seven-Ups, and reunited with Connection co-star Roy Scheider, Stunt Coordinator Bill Hickman, and composer Don Ellis. This time, D'Antoni took over directing chores, and managed to pull off a small, underrated classic in the crime/car chase genres by keeping the story lean and coherent, and mounting one of the best chases of the seventies.
The basic story in Seven-Ups involves a rather roguish clique of undercover cops - including future Dallas co-star Ken Kercheval - who bait and trap mobsters for seven years-and-up convictions (hence the title), and the thin but functional friendship between Scheider and former neighbourhood pal Lo Bianco that goes sour when the greed of Lo Bianco's thugs motivate them to form an independent team, snatching one too many mobsters for higher ransom payments.
The DVD includes a vintage making-of featurette, with a brief appearance by Stunt Coordinator Bill Hickman (also playing one of the greedy kidnappers in the film), and producer/director D'Antoni narrating the basic facts of what went into the gritty chase. D'Antoni especially points out that both cars are "off the line production models," which received reinforced suspension but otherwise drive and get destroyed without any elaborate effects - a major plus for chase enthusiasts preferring authenticity over CGI tomfoolery. Just as intriguing are shots of the cars with multiple cameras bolted to their bodies, which captured many of the high-speed shots that D'Antoni and his editors allowed to run as proof of the cars' actual speed.
Fox' transfer is first-rate, boasting strong colours that make the grungy New York City locales a little less ugly, and solid widescreen photography by Urs Furrer (who also shot the original Shaft ). A full screen version is on the A-side of this flipper release (when it really belongs, if at all, on the B-side), and the DVD's extras are split between both sides, unnecessarily forcing viewers to flip the disc when the extras should be archived in one orderly gallery.
The DVD comes with the original mono and a pseudo-stereo soundtrack mix, and Don Ellis' score is just as dissonant, screechy, and perfectly melded to the drama and characters as in the original French Connection. Unlike William Friedkin's sometimes schizophrenic use of score, Ellis' music plays pretty munch intact, and provides a marvelous atmosphere to the film's constant crashing of elegant objects, ritzy homes, train-yard decay, thuggery, and wintry bleakness.
D'Antoni subsequently moved into TV, producing the pilot for and series of Movin' On (cashing in on the era's itinerant trucker craze) and disappearing from the TV and movie scene after 1976, although he did pop up in the documentary for Fox's French Connection 2-disc set. Co-writer Alexander Jacobs later co-wrote The French Connection II (1975), while fellow scribe Albert Ruben became involved with the original TV series and eighties TV movies of Kojak. Composer Don Ellis also scored Connection II, and the pilot for D'Antoni's Movin' On series, In Tandem (1974).
This title is available separately, or as part of the Classic Crime Collection: Street Justice, which includes Murder Inc., The French Connection (single disc edition), The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and The Seven-Ups.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan