Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Late Great Seventies Police Movies

James O. Born

Wandering around he internet the other day I found a post on my friend Wallace Stroby’s site that was both nostalgic and made my critical police side come out. Wally, a connoisseur of noir and crime movies from the seventies, posts this clip from the movie The Seven Ups. The scene is simple. Roy Scheider chases a pair of cop killers through the streets of New York. Wally points out the geographical errors in the chase. He also covers the cinematic issues.

Now watch the movie. C’mon, it’ll take about ten minutes.

or, if this works here:

I watched this as a teenager at the old Rocking Chair Theater that is now a car dealership in West Palm Beach. I got sucked into the movie even if I didn’t understand the issues and emotions tied to events that unfold.

Now almost thirty-five years later (Ouch, that hurts to write) I look at this chase scene in an entirely different light. I’ve been in a few car chases in my career. Not many. But the ones I have experienced made a lasting impression.

Let me also add that I occasionally make a living advising writers and others about what’s real and what’s not in police work. I answer gun questions, jurisdiction questions even legal questions. I don’t mind helping out, especially if I can put food on the table with advice. But it’s made it almost impossible to watch a TV police show or movie.

The Seven-ups is typical of the time period. But focusing on the chase, first of all there is absolutely a legal reason to chase in the movie. A fellow police officer has been killed. The standard here in Florida is a violent crime. Generally an agency won’t authorize a high-speed pursuit for non-violent crimes. The liability just isn’t worth it.

The chase itself captures the intensity and concentration needed as well as the fear on the cop’s part of hitting pedestrians, especially kids. Think of what Roy Scheider, as a cop, is thinking. His friend is dead. The killers are about to escape. He must safe guard the public. Holy cow, you could overload on just those things, then add in personal danger and it makes you want to pee in your pants. Maybe that was just my issue. I think I might have just shared to much.

The other thing I liked is that these aren’t race cars. Just ordinary street cars for the time; a Ventura Hatchback and a Pontiac Bonneville. No one looks like Brad Pitt and there are no stunts in the cars that are wildly improbable.

Now the logical criticism. When he starts the chase you assume he has no radio and it’s a one on one chase because Roy never calls for help. Then, when a patrol car jumps in he has a radio and tells them “he’s on the job”. Why wait? The call of an officer shot goes out through a whole city, sometimes a state, and everyone jumps in. An assault on a police officer is an assault on order and society. It cannot be tolerated in any society and the bond among cops, like soldiers, is strong. The call for help is answered like nothing you could imagine.

The next logical problem I have is with the bad guys. At one point the passenger, I believe played by Richard Lynch (And I swear to God that’s from memory not Google) sets a trap and fires a double barrel shot gun at Roy. Then, minutes later, when they are bumping cars right next to each other he doesn’t bother to make the much easier shot. He’s not compelled by policy to never shoot at a moving vehicle like most police are.

Just thought I’d take you through an often-overlooked part of police work. Chases are relatively rare anymore and I’m glad of it. But I don’t mind seeing a good one in the movies.

Got any police scenes that have stuck with you?


  1. We seem to have police chases all the time here in the New Haven area. This one happened just on Sunday:

    East Haven (WTNH) - Two men, who led police on a wild chase through several towns, are locked-up tonight.

    News Channel 8's cameras were the only ones on scene as New Haven police made the bust this afternoon.

    Officers revealed the chase began when police tried stopping a mini-van, which they noticed was driving around with stolen plates.

    Police say a New Haven officer was injured when the driver ran over his foot.

    The suspects then got on I-95, led police on a chase through New Haven, East Haven and Branford.

    Then, the suspects' vehicle caught on fire, when the engine blew. The chase finally ended back in New Haven, where the men were taken into custody.

    Firefighters were then called to the scene to put out the flames.

    Witnesses caught up in the chaos, say it was wild scene.

    Police believe drugs and weapons were thrown out of the vehicle during the chase. Tonight the suspects are facing several charges.

  2. My scenes aren't from movies, but from Hill Street Blues. What a great show! Three episodes stand out.

    In one of her first TV appearances, the terrific actress Alfre Woodard played in a three-episode arc, I believe as a drug addict. I was blown away by her performance.

    I also remember when Ken Olin was leaving the show, and he was dying on screen, desperately saying "Officer Down" into his radio.

    But the biggest episode for me was in season 4, when a married, closeted gay cop with kids survived a murder at a gay bar, and he had to come out of the closet in order to catch the killer.

    It was an act of great heroism, knowing that he was destroying his own life in order to serve the greater good.

    Why aren't there any great TV cop shows on now, like HSB, NYPD Blue, etc.

  3. Karen,
    I can speak for you backwoods states. Its hard not to chase when someone runs.

    HSB was about the last cop show I remember watching on a regular basis. I watch the repeats on TV Land sometimes.

    The Ken Olin scene does stand out. What happened to him after he left? I think he did another show. But even HSB viewed from a realistic perspective has serious drawbacks. Police work has ruined me.


  4. The only thing that stands out to me about police shows nowadays is how horrible they are--and if I as a layman can see the illogic, untruths and inconsistencies, it must be like fingernails on a blackboard for professional police.

    I have to admit that what I enjoyed most about HSB wasn't so much the policework, but the genuine camaraderie, much like with M*A*S*H* and select other shows. That seems to be a lost quality these days.

  5. Your post reminded me of a comment I read a few years ago, from the man who was head of Interpol He said he liked mysteries, thrillers and stories of espionage, because they offered a welcome break from his work - because they were nothing like the reality that was his world.

    When my brother was in his early twenties and driving a succession of "classic" cars with a propensity to suddenly shudder and die in the most inconvenient places, his car broke down at a stop light. He began to push the car to the side when another car screeched to a halt behind him. Five guys in black clothing leaped out and began pushing - hard. Once they had the car on the shoulder, the jacket of one of them came open to reveal a stash of firearms. "Sorry mate," the guy said, "We're in a bit of a hurry, but we'll get you some help." As they sped off (in a BMW) he saw one of them using a radio and within minutes a police car turned up with a tow truck following. As you probably know, the police in Britain generally don't carry firearms, but they do have special response units of highly trained marksmen who can move in on a situation very quickly. My brother said he broke a sweat when that jacket fell open - said he thought he might have been a goner for "seeing too much." Another Winspear with a vivid imagination!

    That's my only semi-car-chase story ... and I enjoyed your post, Jim, though I'll have to watch that clip later. I still think the car chases in the Bourne movies were the best ever, And if you want to read a good car chase scene, check out Meg Gardiner's, The Dirty Secrets Club - it opens the book and is excellent.

  6. Tell the truth, James O. Did you wear your seat belt in those chases?

  7. There's the obvious: Clint Eastwood with his .44 Magnum in "Dirty Harry."

    "I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

    Which is probably why you use a handgun with 17 rounds.

    Then, there's "The French Connection," which coincidentally was released the same year (1971). Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle:

    "Now I'm gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I'm gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie."

    But the scene with more resonance in that movie is Hackman on surveillance. He's standing in the cold, stomping his feet, drinking stale coffee, watching the villain, Fernando Rey, dine on chateaubriand in a fancy restaurant. I think a lot of cops must have identified with that.

  8. Patty,
    I did wear seat belts unless it looked like I might have to bail out in a hurry and chase on foot. In fact, I can remember buckling up after a chase had begun.

    Paul, as usual, has put his finger on the pulse of America. Two great movies.

    I like the French Connection II when hackman calls in for help and says, "Bring water, lots of water." Then buns down the place he was held hostage.