A new approach was developed for the synthesis of (S)-1-[5-(benzoylamino)-1,4-dioxo-6-phenylhexyl]-L-proline (1) and 23 analogues. The delta-(acylamino)-gamma-keto acid intermediates were obtained by a modified Dakin--West reaction using 3-carbomethoxypropionyl chloride. Acylation of L-proline and recrystallization of the mixture of diastereomers gave the optically pure title compound in three reaction steps. The in vitro angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitory activity of 1 was confirmed. Some of the novel analogues (6, 11, 13, and 17) were also found to be potent inhibitors of ACE in vitro with an IC50 of 1.4-8.8 x 10(-9) M (IC50 for captopril = 0.9 x 10(-8) M). In vivo these compounds (6, 11, 17, and 18) were much less active than captopril, especially by the oral route. Against angiotensin I (AI) challenge in normotensive conscious rats, 1 and 6 produced less than 50% inhibition at 30 mg/kg po but 57 to 82% inhibition at 3 mg/kg iv. Inhibition by both routes lasted less than 1 h. In renal hypertensive rats, 1 and 15 of its analogues failed to produce significant blood pressure lowering effects, in contrast to the marked effects of captopril. Near maximum inhibition of AI was achieved by continuous intravenous infusions of 1 and 20, suggesting that limited oral activity may by due to degradation and/or clearance.