Friday, April 03, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

A few months ago I saw a trailer for THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974), nicely edited to David Shire's excellent score.

I was intrigued, as I enjoy watching a good action or heist film every so often, so I ordered the Special Edition Blu-ray released by Kino Lorber.

I've now caught up with the movie and am happy to say it didn't disappoint. It's a well-paced, interesting, and even funny film, shot on location in New York.

The movie immediately plunges the viewer into the action. A quartet of code-named villains -- Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman), and Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) -- methodically take over a New York subway train, Pelham 123, holding the passengers hostage.

They give their ransom demand -- a million dollars in small bills, to be delivered to them in one hour -- to Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) of the transit police. Garber becomes the point man, dealing with Mr. Blue on the phone and then passing on operational information to law enforcement colleagues, including Lt. Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller) and Inspector Daniels (Julius Harris).

Getting the million dollars to the hijackers in the allotted time seems to be an impossibility, and when it's apparent there will be a delay, Garber improvises in an attempt to keep the hijackers from killing the passengers.

Garber also knows that there happens to be an undercover cop on the train, but no one seems to know who it is and what he or she might do. And how the hijackers intend to escape from the subway tunnel once they have the money is anyone's guess.

This was quite a good movie, jam-packed with action and story from start to finish. The characterizations are gradually revealed as each person responds to a high-pressure situation. Matthau's Garber initially seems to be a man stuck in a fairly ho-hum job -- as the film begins he's giving some Japanese subway executives a tour with a decided lack of enthusiasm -- but as matters unfold he shows himself to be quite competent and focused as he works the problem, and he confidently uses sarcasm and a dose of reality as he's negotiating with Mr. Blue.

On the street above Garber's command station, all is chaos, but he remains coolly in control -- except when he has to shake some sense into a coworker (Dick O'Neill) who's more concerned about the train system being down for the upcoming rush hour than the hostages.

I've said in the past that I don't particularly consider myself a fan of Matthau, and yet I have to admit that in the right role he's really entertaining to watch. He was the best thing in MIRAGE (1965), for example, and the movie lost a lot when his character exited partway into the film, and I've watched him in the excellent CHARLEY VARRICK (1973) a couple of times. He's terrific in this, right up to his very last priceless expression as the movie ends. Perhaps I'm becoming more of a fan...

Among the villains, Balsam's ill Mr. Green is rather annoying, while Elizondo's Mr. Grey is perhaps the scariest of the hijackers, as he turns out to be a ruthless killer. Dissension among the hijackers will ultimately prove to be a factor that works in Garber's favor.

I also liked that the hostages were a gritty group of New Yorkers; although there's a mother fearful for her two boys, by and large the varied passengers respond to the situation in such a way that the viewer is not overly weighed down with distress about their situation. Indeed, an elderly man (Michael Gorrin) that one might feel most concerned about proves to be one of the people who copes the best, engaging the hijackers in conversation and encouraging his fellow passengers.

The film is rated R, but while it's violent, it's not bloody. I was more annoyed with the inordinate amount of cussing; I sometimes feel this was overdone in movies of this era simply because they could, freed relatively recently from previous Production Code restrictions. Eventually it gets to the point where the words are simply meaningless.

The film was directed by Joseph Sargent, who was primarily known as a director of TV-movies; I've seen quite a bit of his TV work and especially liked CAROLINE? (1990) with Stephanie Zimbalist.

The movie was shot on location in New York by Owen Roizman. The film's script was by Peter Stone, based on a novel by John Godey; it runs 104 well-paced minutes.

The Kino Lorber Special Edition Blu-ray includes the trailer; interviews with Hector Elizondo, David Shire, and editor Gerald Greenberg; a commentary track; and more.

The trailer is here.

The movie was remade in 2009, with Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the Matthau and Shaw roles.

Recommended for fans of heist films. It's a good one!


Blogger Seth said...

I watched this for the first time last night on TCM and enjoyed it much more than I expected. I agree with you nearly 100%, especially your assessment of the language, and the final scene. Also, I was surprised that the subplot with the mayor just kind of disappeared.

Coincidently, one of the discs now on its way to me from ClassicFlix is MIRAGE, to which I'm looking forward.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

My God, I love this film. Actually no, that’s not quite right, I ADORE it. 70s movies are something I can take or leave. Mostly leave. Not this one. I remember seeing it the first time, not that long ago, and it blew me away. I was stunned. It’s one of those movies that manages to capture the spirit of New York like no other. Many movies have tried, not all of them succeeded. This one did. It put its finger on the pulse of the weird strange town and nails the heart and soul of it.

Granted, I didn’t live through the down and out New York of the 70s, lucky me. It was a grimy town. I was there a good bit later.
(As a side note, my father had the good fortune to be in NYC during Mad Men times. I still envy him.)

But the movie translates well into other decades. I lived there from 1999-2011 and so was there for 9/11. A bad and infamous day, but in the end it showed all New Yorkers what this city was all about. Never give up. What I love most of it is the, pardon me, no BS attitude of Walter Matthau - who was never better - which to me something I’ve not encountered anywhere else. I still miss it.

By the end it’s clear that New York has not been redeemed or even become a better city, but it has survived another day. For this town, that’s all it ever came down to, and it’s all that ever mattered. It’s all that matters now.

10:07 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Seth! I'm so glad you enjoyed the movie as well. (Seeing it on the TCM schedule was part of what prompted me to bump that disc to the top of my viewing stack!) I was very interested in your take on it.

I wasn't too sorry the mayor disappeared as I found him too "cartoon-y" -- that's something I didn't think to mention in the post. But it was nice to see a young(er) Doris Roberts as his wife.

I'll be interested to know what you think of MIRAGE when you get a chance to watch it!

Best wishes,

10:24 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Margot,

What a wonderful assessment of the film tying it in with your memories of New York City. I loved reading it.

Like you, I'm not a big fan of '70s films, or at least early '70s films. It was an era I associate with a lot of crass and negative movies, when there were few titles I could go see as a kid, other than live-action Disney. From '76 (the year of ROCKY) things got much better and Hollywood started releasing many films I could actually go see. But this film from the first half of the decade is a good one, and Matthau's CHARLEY VARRICK (1973) is another.

It's funny, as someone who's never lived in NYC, it can seem like an alien place, at least as portrayed on film -- so many hard-edged or obnoxious types LOLLL. But you're right, the converse side of that is the never give up attitude -- such as the ransom money continuing on the move to its destination, regardless of car flips or shootouts (grin).

And the Matthau attitude you describe is something I really liked about the character -- that he was so blunt when talking to Shaw, no attempt to make nice and sugarcoat things, but at the same time he was able, perhaps exactly because he was frank and wisecracking, to establish at least some level of rapport. I also liked that he would tolerate his coworker for a certain amount of time but finally he forced the guy to get with the program, so to speak.

Hoping that New York, and all of us, survive our current trying times with better days ahead!

Thanks again for your thoughts!

Best wishes,

10:43 PM  

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