Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

It says a lot about THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE’s reputation that Hollywood has remade it twice, even though it isn’t the most well-known ‘70s thriller among casual filmgoers. Its plot may be standard heist stuff, but the clever screenplay by CHARADE’s Peter Stone, based on a Morton Freedgood (as John Godey) novel, isn’t at all standard, peppering the sharp dialogue and crystal-clear characterizations with cynical humor (“Screw the passengers! What the hell do they expect for their lousy 35 cents — to live forever?”). Joseph Sargent’s direction is crisp and tight, making certain not to waste a frame on anything that doesn’t contribute to telling the story.

New York City Transit Authority Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau, who did this after CHARLEY VARRICK and THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN) is having a bad afternoon. After giving a guided tour of the subway system to four visiting Japanese dignitaries who (he believes) don’t speak English, Garber returns to his station to discover a subway car containing 18 hostages—the Pelham 123—has been hijacked by four machine-gun-toting terrorists, including case-of-the-sniffles-carrying Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), hotheaded ex-mobster Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), and ice-cold former mercenary Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw).

Mr. Blue, the group’s leader, allows Garber one hour to deliver $1 million in old fifties and hundies, or he’ll begin killing a John Rocker nightmare of diverse hostages, which includes a jive-talking black man, a couple of screaming kids, an Hispanic woman who definitely doesn’t understand English, an undercover policeman, some hippies, and an old Jew. John Rocker would definitely not enjoy this ride.

Harried civil servants routinely rant, curse, and scream at each other, and their tension turns to apoplexy when Mr. Blue and crew toss a monkey wrench into their daily routine. Many of the jabs at The System and New York’s political structure are broad, but the fine cast of character actors makes them work. Matthau is completely believable as a dedicated cop trying to match wits with an adversary much smarter and deadlier than the muggers and pushers he usually deals with in the subway. His work is equaled by Shaw, who leaves no doubt Mr. Blue will do exactly as he says he’ll do if his instructions are not followed to the letter.

Actual New York City locations are well used. Although a disclaimer at the end claims the NYC Transit Authority did not participate in the making of PELHAM, it’s clear that Sargent (JAWS: THE REVENGE) would not have been able to create the tense atmosphere that he does without using real subway cars and tunnels. Cinematographer Owen Roizman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) handles the dark, dank underground photography quite well, while David Shire’s funky musical score contributes to the film’s gritty feel. And who can deny PELHAM boasts one of the greatest final shots in film history?

The supporting cast also includes future FAMILY star James Broderick, Earl Hindman (later to be Tim Allen’s half-hidden neighbor on HOME IMPROVEMENT), Dick O’Neill, Kenneth McMillan, Doris Roberts (EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND), the solid black presence Julius Harris (LIVE AND LET DIE) as a police inspector (Matthau, upon meeting Harris for the first time after speaking to him over the radio, stammers, “Er, I thought you were a, uh, taller person, oh, hell, I don’t know what I thought.”), Jerry Stiller (very funny as Matthau’s partner), Sal Viscuso, and a nice bit by Tony Roberts as the deputy mayor.

1 comment:

Grant said...

I haven't seen it in some time, but I've always liked how, instead of some violent scene, the ending has a "COLUMBO" sort of quality to it.