Monday, August 12, 2019

The Seven-Ups: More Than a Great Car Chase

Roy Scheider as Manucci.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was a banner period for gritty, urban cop pictures. Philip D'Antoni produced three of the best, which all incidentally featured nail-biting chase sequences: Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Seven-Ups. The least famous of that trio is The Seven-Ups (1973), which serves as a sort of follow-up to The French Connection (1971) and also stars Roy Scheider.

He plays Buddy Manucci, a single-minded detective who heads a secret police unit called the Seven-Ups. He and his three team members focus on mobsters who commit major crimes...and earn sentences of seven years or more. Buddy's success hinges in large part on his childhood friend Vito (Tony Lo Bianco), an undertaker with mob connections who serves as an informant.

Tony Lo Bianco and Scheider.
Vito needs money--a lot of it. His wife may have tuberculosis and his day job isn't paying all the bills. He gleans information from Buddy to hatch a scheme to kidnap notable mob bosses and hold them for ransom. It's a profitable venture until one of the kidnappings results in the death of one of the Seven-Ups and Buddy makes it a personal vendetta to find the killer.

The character of Buddy Manucci is based on real-life NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, who also served as the inspiration for Scheider's character in The French Connection. In a 1971 interview in The New York Times, producer D'Antoni stated that Grosso told him a "weird and fascinating story" that became the basic plot of The Seven-Ups.

Roy Scheider, who always excelled at playing obsessive characters, is convincing as a driven cop willing to cross the line to get the job done (e.g., he withholds oxygen from a severely injured criminal to get information). However, Tony Lo Bianco nearly steals the film as the too-smooth-for-his-own-good Vito. When he uses his wife's illness as justification for his crimes, it's unclear whether he's sincere or just using his family tragedy as an excuse.

A shotgun blasts removes the hood from Scheider's car.
The famous car chase occurs almost an hour into the film and lasts for ten minutes. Unlike Bullitt, there are no muscle cars involved, as Scheider drives a Pontiac Ventura Sprint coupe and the bad guys are in a Pontiac Grand Ville sedan. That doesn't mean there is any less suspense as the cars careen through crowded streets at high-octane speeds. In my opinion, it's the best car chase in movie history. Much of its impact can be attributed to the facial expressions of Scheider and Richard Lynch (as one of the villains). There's a great sequence showing a group of kids playing in the street who scream and scatter as the first car zips through them. They reconvene in the street only to go running for the sidewalks again as Scheider zooms past.

Richard Lynch and Bill Hickman.
Stunt driver extraordinaire Bill Hickman helped choreograph the car chase and also plays the unflappable baddie behind the wheel of the speeding sedan. Hickman also served as a stunt driver in Bullitt and The French Connection. Jerry Greenberg, who won an Oscar for editing The French Connection, likely had a hand in the editing though he's listed solely as an associate producer for The Seven-Ups.

In addition to his producer duties, Philip D'Antoni also directed The Seven-Ups--it was his only directing job. He obviously learned a lot from watching William Friedkin (French Connection) as he makes superb use of his New York locales. The snowy streets, whistling winds, and frosty breaths all contribute to the film's realism. It's a shame that D'Antoni didn't make more gritty action pictures. Instead, he moved to television where he co-created the 1974-76 TV series Movin' On, with Claude Akins and Frank Converse as truckers. He also produced a TV series pilot movie called Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside starring Tony Lo Bianco (again) and Hal Linden as big city cops.

Incidentally, if one of Scheider's Seven-Ups team members looks familiar, then you must have recognized the late Ken Kercheval. He would achieve his biggest success five years later as Cliff Barnes in the long-running Dallas TV series.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

James Stewart is The Man From Laramie

James Stewart as Lockhart.
Shortly after Will Lockhart delivers a load of supplies in the small town of Coronado, he runs afoul of Dave Waggoman. The son of a wealthy rancher, the psychotic Dave punishes Will for inadvertently trespassing on Waggoman land. Dave burns Will's wagons and kills several of his mules.

The elder Waggoman (Donald Crisp) reimburses Will (James Stewart) for his losses and even offers him a job. However, Will has no intention of working for anyone nor leaving town. He is driven by revenge, having arrived in Coronado to find out who sold repeating rifles to the Apaches that killed his younger brother. It's inevitable that Will will clash again with Waggoman, his out-of-control son, and the foreman (Arthur Kennedy) who runs their ranch.

Made in 1955, The Man From Laramie is the last of five Westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart. It's also the least memorable of the quintet, but keep in mind that three of the other four are among the best Westerns made in the 1950s (Winchester '73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country). The Man From Laramie pales in comparison only because it's a more conventional tale of revenge, as opposed to a treatise on the civilization of the Old West and the importance of family.

Arthur Kennedy as Vic.
Of course, there's nothing conventional about any Anthony Mann Western. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many critics view The Man From Laramie as a Western retelling of King Lear. To be sure, there are thematic similarities: Waggoman bequeaths his ranch to his son Dave and to his foreman Vic (Kennedy) and then has second thoughts about his decision. Although one could say it's inspired by Lear, The Man From Laramie is not really based on it. (For a better Shakespearean Western, check out Delmer Daves' Jubal).

Arthur Kennedy, who also teamed with Stewart and Mann in Bend of the River, portrays the most interesting character. Vic, the foreman, has invested his life in the ranch under the impression that he's a "son" to the elder Waggoman. However, when Waggoman makes it clear that Dave is his only true son, Vic starts to have other ideas. A couple of bad decisions place him into an uncomfortable position and we get to watch as he tries to squirm out of it. Kennedy is very convincing, almost to the point that one wishes that Vic will succeed with his plan.

Cathy O' Donnell.
The supporting cast is inconsistent. Alex Nichol makes Dave so unhinged that it's difficult to fathom why anyone--even a loving parent-- would leave him in charge of the Waggoman ranch. Cathy O'Donnell doesn't have a lot to do as the female lead, but she and Stewart are appealing together while never sharing a romantic scene (his character is more interested in her than she in him). Frankly, it's refreshing to not inject a love triangle in a Western already packed with subplots about revenge, family discord, and dynasty-building. O'Donnell didn't appear in a lot of movies, though she held her own in quality films like Detective Story and The Miniver Story.

The Man From Laramie may not be required viewing, but it's a worthwhile Western. It's also notable for one of the most violent scenes in a 1950s Western when Stewart gets his hand shot at close range. No details are shown, but Stewart's acting is so good that you'll cringe throughout the scene. Don't say I didn't warn you!

Here's a clip from The Man from Laramie, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel:

Monday, August 5, 2019

Spy Game: Mr. Palfrey of Westminster

Alec McCowen as Mr. Palfrey.
His enemies call him a rattlesnake. His boss compares him to a terrier. And his assistant describes him as "prissy." They all agree, though, that Mr. Palfrey is an extraordinary spy hunter--though he claims that he is simply a civil servant.

Set in the 1980s, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster is a first-rate, cerebral espionage drama that aired for two seasons on Thames Television in Great Britain and on PBS in the U.S. Star Alec McCowen first appeared as Palfrey in an episode of the anthology show Storyboard called "The Traitor."

In the opening episode of the Mr. Palfrey, our protagonist learns that his department has been reorganized and he has a new boss--known only as the Coordinator--who answers directly to the Prime Minister. The Coordinator is a woman, a fact which has no bearing to Palfrey, but which irks many of his sexist male colleagues.

Caroline Blakiston.
Under the reorganization, Palfrey has a new (smaller) office, a secretary (for three days a week), and a "legman" named Blair to perform tasks such as surveillance. Initially, the Coordinator directs Blair (Clive Wood) to spy on Palfrey and report back to her. That's a short-lived directive, though, as Blair develops loyalty to his new boss and the Coordinator (Caroline Blakiston) learns why Palfrey has such a stellar reputation.

The plots revolve around defectors, suspected spies, blackmail, and cover-ups. Palfrey and the Coordinator frequently clash over how to handle their assignments. He isn't afraid to challenge her (always politely) and often chooses his own path to achieve the desired outcome.

For example, in the episode "Return to Sender," Palfrey is directed to convince a former defector to return to the Soviet Union. If the man is unwilling to leave, then Palfrey is to silence him permanently. It is an official act of murder that Palfrey and Blair are willing to do--grudgingly. Fortunately, the resourceful Palfrey employs another equally effective method to get the job done.

Clive Wood as Blair.
One of the most entertaining aspects of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster is how it develops its characters slowly, revealing snippets here and there about their background. We know that the gentlemanly Palfrey has a dog (a Golden Retriever named Jess), likes to fish, has few close friends, and respects women. He may occasionally enjoy the company of a certain female defector. Other than that, Palfrey seems focused solely on his job. Blair is even more an enigma, though one episode reveals a serious relationship in his past. Rough around the edges, Blair does have aspirations of career progression.

Alec McCowen, with his quick wit and intelligent eyes, is perfectly cast as Palfrey. A highly-respected stage actor, American audiences may remember him best as the Scotland Yard inspector in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, as Q in the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again, and opposite Maggie Smith in Travels With My Aunt.

Following the cancellation of Mr. Palfrey, Clive Wood played Blair again in a episode of Storyboard called "A Question of Commitment." It served as a TV series pilot, but a regular show was not commissioned. Blair--without Palfrey--didn't prove to be interesting enough.