Philip D’Antoni’s Trilogy

Philip D’Antoni produced a trilogy of classic movie crime thrillers: Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Seven-Ups (respectively, 1968, 1971, and 1973); and then he disappeared into a career of making scattered and trivial TV productions. Once an artist, never again an artist. That can be the twisted moral of being an artist in Hollywood: one’s run can be short; the public interest fickle; and the ironic truism yet again stun one that “there’s no business like show business.”

His three great thrillers dramatize an artistically adventurous three-act discovery of the darkness in the “cops and robbers” story; he dramatizes much of the reality of that crucial drama in our cities: purity of motive and simplicity of moral character become more compromised as the revolutionary D’Antoni begins in Bullitt by reinventing the crime-thriller; moves on in The French Connection with his hard-won new skills and tricks to rise to a nonpareil mastery of an almost pure crime-thriller excitement; and ends in the slog of the The Seven-Ups, the least acclaimed of the trilogy, with a blunt tragic sense of the police procedural.

His ending up with The Seven-Ups seems inevitable, and making that ambiguous film exposed for him, I’d think, the constraints on art in the business of show business, especially movie genres, constraints imposed by studio suits and audiences alike. By the time D’Antoni creates The Seven-Ups, the good guys could be better and the bad guys couldn’t be much more human, including shortsighted and frail. A Mafia meeting in a funeral parlor is a small masterpiece.

Peter Yates directed Bullitt, William Friedkin The French Connection, and D’Antoni himself The Seven-Ups. Perhaps D’Antoni couldn’t have trusted anyone else with that finale of his trilogy, the concluding episode of his own journey into the heart of darkness.

The acting talent throughout his trilogy is impressive and inspired; and it includes Robert Vaughan, Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Fernando Rey, and Bill Hickman, the latter a fabled automobile stunt driver as well as a natural actor excellent as a “heavy.” Some of these performers reappear throughout the trilogy in various roles and comprise an acting company of D’Antoni’s. Women appear occasionally and perfunctorily and stereotypically, usually just often enough in standard cameos to validate the expected virility of the cops and robbers. The superb scores are by Lalo Schifrin (Bullitt) and Don Ellis.

At the time he was making these films, D’Antoni was lean and bearded, not the well-heeled, clean-shaven TV guy he became. You can tell especially in watching The French Connection and The Seven-Ups that there must have been a lot of camaraderie on the sets and a shared vision of the modern crime movie. Scheider and Lo Bianco were professional boxers before turning to acting; Hickman was the primary choreographer of the car chases in all three films but invited ideas from any and all; Hackman and Vaughan, probably the most talented of the actors, seemed at home in their two films.

But you have to believe that the unified new vision for those times that created the trilogy in the first place–that makes it distinctive–must largely have been that of D’Antoni.

Yes, D’Antoni creates a gripping movie art far beyond the ordinary in Tinseltown in his deepening trilogy; it’s a remarkable American drama, unified by several motifs such as the car chase taken to new extremes and, in the last two films in the trilogy, the staging of the showdown gunfight between police and crooks in the hellish decaying fringes–the shed skin of the urban serpent–of the American metropolis whose towering, shining skyline Kenneth Clarke idealized through its display above-it-all in his Civilisation TV series to epitomize what he called the “Heroic Materialism” of New World America.

America may well be middle-aged in D’Antoni’s three classics, especially in the last two which were filmed in the true grit of street-level New York City and bring over that world in a poetic, stylized, disturbing vision.

It’s a very tough world where the chasers and the chased live for the challenge. Greed seems to lag the excitement of the fight itself.

It’s hard to imagine these films being made today. So they are more valuable than ever.

For me D’Antoni’s trilogy tops that of The Godfather. His is far more stylish and haunting.