In the first installment of his new column, The DVD Insomniac, Chris Nashawaty pays tribute to Roy Scheider, so kick-ass in the recently released ''The Seven-Ups''
Credit: The Seven Ups: Kobal Collection

Why Roy Scheider deserves his tough-guy props

Actors like Gene Hackman, James Caan, and Al Pacino get a lot of respect for the tough guys they played back in the ’70s. But I’m pretty sure Roy Scheider could kick all of their asses. That’s right, Chief Brody from Jaws.

While Hackman was busy bugging people and being all paranoid in The Conversation, Caan was dodging bookies and bedding Lauren Hutton in The Gambler, and Pacino was sticking up banks in Dog Day Afternoon, Scheider was plugging away in relative blue-collar anonymity, turning in a string of less flashy but equally cool performances that still somehow get overlooked.

He was right there as Hackman’s partner in The French Connection. He preened like a psychotic leather-jacket peacock as the pimp in Klute. And he ended the decade showing that tough guys could dance as the self-destructive, chainsmoking choreographer in All That Jazz. (Interesting career footnote: right after Jaws, Michael Cimino cast Scheider as the lead in The Deer Hunter. But Scheider had second thoughts about the film’s ending and he walked. He walked! Now, that’s balls! Cimino gave the part to Robert De Niro, and the film won all sorts of Oscars.)

All of this, though, is a longwinded preamble to my real point: that this week one of Scheider’s funkiest movies from that era is available for the first time on DVD: 1973’s The Seven-Ups. Scheider plays Buddy Manucci, the tough-as-nails ringleader of an undercover special unit of New York City cops who have carte blanche in the department to pretty much do whatever they want to catch bad guys. They’re like vigilantes with badges. All the uniformed cops hate them, but secretly admire them because they get results and they get to wear flashy clothes.

In his snug slacks and turtleneck sweaters, Scheider struts down the grimy streets of New York City with the swagger of an East Coast Dirty Harry. The actor’s trademark broken nose — Scheider broke it boxing as a teenager — seems to enhance his character’s street cred as a hair-trigger cop. He looks like a guy who might bust some skulls, Miranda rights be damned. And he more or less gets his chance to do just that in a classic scene where he sneaks into an intensive care unit to interrogate a barely stable witness, cutting off the dude’s oxygen every time he refuses to answer Scheider’s questions. He’s ruthless, sadistic, and you can’t take your eyes off of him.

Still, the most famous scene in this hardly famous film comes about 45 minutes in. The Seven-Ups was directed by Philip D’Antoni, the producer of Bullitt and The French Connection, so you know there’s going to be a car chase. And this one’s a mother. It goes on for 15 minutes. Fifteen blood-pounding minutes of squealing tires and roaring engines, as two unwieldy ’70s gas guzzlers dodge pedestrians and ram into each other. You feel like you’re right there riding shotgun. It’s one of the greatest car chases ever filmed. And personally, I can’t think of anyone I’d want more than Roy Scheider behind the wheel.