Ever since the auteur theory came to prominence within film criticism in the 1940s, most retrospective looks at a filmmaker’s body of work have concerned directors or actors. Producers are typically considered a necessary evil of filmmaking — salesmen and women who can get a production off the ground — but tend to be either disinterested or too interested in the creative process itself. Every so often, however, a producer comes along who is bold enough and visionary enough to not just be able to get a film financed, but point the production and even the medium in a new direction. One such figure is Philip D’Antoni, a producer whose entire career in show business spans just 14 years and 13 credits, the bulk of which were productions for television. In the midst of those, D’Antoni produced just three feature films — Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and The Seven-Ups (1973, which D’Antoni also directed himself) — a thematic trilogy of sorts featuring police officers who enforce the law in extreme fashion, gritty realism, New Hollywood stylistic boldness and breakneck, breathtaking car chase sequences. With these three films, D’Antoni not only became one of the most successful producers of all time, but he also made an artistic statement just as strong as any director or actor’s filmography, forever changing the “cop movie.”
Before Bullitt, the cop movie subgenre was in a fairly conservative place. Most films in the 40s and 50s featuring members of law enforcement as the protagonists tended to be film noirs, where the law was represented by morally compromised private detectives. Leading characters who were actual fully-fledged government officials tended to be few and far between, with films about them being almost nakedly jingoistic, such as 1959’s The FBI Story. A decade later, the reputation of cops was at an all-time low point, with counter-culture protests against the government in full swing. D’Antoni wasn’t necessarily looking to make a subversive statement with Bullitt — he was making the move from producing celebrity-hosted travelogue specials on television to motion pictures, tapped by Steve McQueen to help launch the star’s production company with a movie based on a pulp thriller novel by Robert L. Pike called Mute Witness. As production on Bullitt got underway, however, things just turned that way: McQueen didn’t want to play a square member of the establishment, so he studied and emulated famous San Francisco cop Dave Toschi, whose public reputation was more regarded as an individual rather than a member of a faceless force. Director Peter Yates and his cast couldn’t make sense of the too-labyrinthine script, so they rehearsed for several weeks before shooting, improvising new dialogue and throwing out most of the old. D’Antoni made two major, key contributions — he and Yates decided to shoot the film in San Francisco, in the hopes of being left alone by the studio powers that be, and he also felt that the film should feature a car chase.
With those elements in place, Bullitt went on to make action and cop movie history. It’s a visually bold film, with Yates’ camera angles and compositions breaking all sorts of Hollywood “rules,” the shots so expressive that the long stretches of no dialogue make the movie feel almost arthouse-like. In its treatment of its title character, Lt. Frank Bullitt, the movie is nuanced, with McQueen soulfully portraying a man who may have become too calloused to the violence he witnesses everyday. He also may be the most empathetic man around, as the corrupt politicians, lazy fellow policemen and brutal criminals he’s surrounded by don’t look anything like respectable individuals. The location shooting in San Fran lends the film a unique look as well as an authenticity, a quality that gives way to jaw-dropping immediacy during the car chase sequence. The set piece isn’t just technically impressive — it also establishes character, showing Bullitt to be a cop who lures his prey into a false sense of security, before pulling out all the stops to capture them. It also shows him and the criminal driver (played by Bill Hickman, who was in fact the stunt driver who did all of his own driving in the sequence) to be reckless speed demons, their vehicles (a Ford Mustang GT Fastback and a Dodge Charger) clipping cars and popping off hubcaps. The sequence was all shot on real San Francisco roads that had been closed down to through traffic for safety — the first and last time D’Antoni would take such a measure.
Having established himself as a successful producer of motion pictures after Bullitt, D’Antoni chose to stay within the crime/action cop drama genre for his next film, an adaptation of the real-life events depicted in the 1969 book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore. Based on the exploits of NYC detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, detailing how they exposed a heroin smuggling ring in the early 60s, D’Antoni wanted to continue the topics explored both narratively as well as stylistically in Bullitt. So, against the studio’s wishes, he tapped a young director named William Friedkin to make the picture, having been familiar with Friedkin’s television documentary work such as The People Vs. Paul Crump. Friedkin insisted on shooting the movie in an “induced documentary” style, meaning as close to reality as possible, which only furthered what D’Antoni and Yates had attempted on Bullitt. The French Connection ended up being shot exclusively in and around New York City, entirely on location, with Egan and Grosso being key advisors. The two cops worked closely with principal actors Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, taking them along on impromptu drug busts and other police operations. Once again, the script was heavily rewritten and improvised, with Egan and Grosso playing supporting parts themselves, giving the film a sense of gritty realism.
This ethos extended to the car chase sequence, which once again commented on character through action, but pushed the envelope even further. D’Antoni and Friedkin both believed the chase should top what the producer had pulled off in Bullitt, and so, again hiring the stunt driver Hickman (who also has an unrelated supporting role in the movie), they planned to shoot the chase under the elevated B train in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Unlike in San Francisco, D’Antoni (at Friedkin’s urging) didn’t bother to obtain permits or close off the streets that they’d be shooting on, instead relying on Egan and Grosso’s local police connections to watch for any trouble. The result is arguably the best car chase of all time, a race between a subway train and a 1971 Pontiac LeMans. It’s the shots of near-misses and gnarly collisions (only one of which was deliberately staged by Friedkin), as well as the close ups of Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle, that lend the sequence its power, as the cop screams and swears violently, like a man possessed. Much of the film blurs the line between cop and criminal further than Bullitt ever did, with Doyle and his partner committing brutish acts (when Doyle isn’t being openly misogynist or racist), contrasted with Fernando Rey’s genteel, civilized heroin smuggler. Beginning in earnest with the chase, Doyle is shown to go over the line time and again, endangering innocent bystanders and anyone else stopping him from getting his collar, culminating in his accidental killing of a federal agent in the film’s final moments. The French Connection ends on an unsettling note (tonally and aurally, thanks to Don Ellis’ score), hinting at the world of horror Friedkin was soon to enter into with The Exorcist. The success of the film and its director wouldn’t have happened without producer D’Antoni, however, as he put together the right material with the right personnel, rightfully winning an Academy Award for his efforts.
Shortly after The French Connection, D’Antoni made the ultimate leap to director, bringing to the screen one final statement about cops, criminals, and cars. The Seven-Ups (1973) was originally intended to be a D’Antoni production for Friedkin to direct, but when Friedkin moved on, D’Antoni took the reins himself. In most cases, a producer turned first-time director would make studios nervous, but 20th Century Fox had utter faith in D’Antoni, likely because of how clearly creative and business-minded his decisions had been in the past. Instead of using a book source, D’Antoni based his story on the real-life existence of an elite group of policemen whose collars got seven years in jail minimum, as told to him by Grosso. D’Antoni put together a package he was most comfortable with — shooting again exclusively in NYC and the surrounding areas, starring The French Connection alums Scheider (playing another thinly veiled version of Grosso) and Tony Lo Bianco, and utilizing the stunt driving as well as acting talents of Hickman. The film is just as gritty in tone as D’Antoni’s previous movies, though it features a cleaner shooting style, apropos to D’Antoni’s television roots. It allows the script, left mostly intact this time, to shine through, as Scheider’s Buddy struggles (Godfather-like) between staying true to his chosen duty and compatriots and honoring cultural roots and childhood friendships. In this way, the “rogue cop” is once again shown to be a figure who straddles the line between cop and criminal, with Buddy and the rest of the Seven-Ups given almost free reign to bring their collars in, a lack of oversight they’re admonished for several times during the film. There’s a real sense of moral confusion that comes out of this, as nearly every major character is left wondering just how much of a good guy (or bad guy) they really are.
These thematic concerns come to a head in the film’s central car chase, of course, and while it may not be the best known of the three, it just may be the most impressive. Spanning a rather large geographical area (in the film, it’s cheated to be more compact), the chase starts in Brooklyn, and then continues through the Taconic State Parkway, the Upper West Side and the George Washington Bridge all the way to the Palisades Interstate Parkway in New Jersey. Anybody who’s been to or lived in the NYC area knows just how congested and stop-and-start these roadways typically are, so it’s jaw-dropping to see Hickman’s Pontiac Grand Ville being pursued by Jerry Summers’ (driving for Scheider) Pontiac Ventura Custom Sprint at near-ludicrous speeds. This time, D’Antoni obtained a few shooting permits here and there, but even then exceeded his authority — when state officials would allow the cars in the scene to travel over the GWB but only at 45mph, D’Antoni told everyone, including and especially the helicopters shooting the scene, that they would be going much faster, and they would only have one take. Rather than the dogged determination of Bullitt or the righteous anger of Popeye Doyle, Buddy’s recklessness comes from a thirst for revenge after having found one of his men killed by the extortionist criminals. It paints The Seven-Ups as a more personal story, one in which the characters are caught up in their respective worlds so much that they might not see the (metaphorical and literal) trailer truck right in front of them until it’s too late. This crash (which was orchestrated by Hickman as a homage to Jayne Mansfield’s infamous death) is so spectacular that it’s astonishing everyone walked away from it unharmed.
The Seven-Ups sadly did not have the box office legs nor the awards clout that D’Antoni’s previous pictures did, and after its modest theatrical run, the producer turned back to television, his first home. His subsequent productions there continued the partnerships and interests as his theatrical features — most of them are cop/crime dramas, and a few directly involve the aforementioned advisor/producer Grosso. After a successful series (Movin’ On, 1974-76) and a few failed pilots, D’Antoni retired, leaving show business behind. While it’s a shame he didn’t go on to produce further stories about morally conflicted policemen and car chase sequences that breathlessly attempted to top each other, he left behind a legacy that is undeniably strong. Without the three films D’Antoni produced, the action movie and the cop movie would look and feel quite different, as there’s a direct line to be drawn from Frank Bullitt to the “he doesn’t play by the book” cop heroes of macho 80s classics. Unlike a lot of those films, D’Antoni’s work remains nuanced, authentic and bold. Just like his protagonists, D’Antoni refused to play by the rules, and he got results.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.