The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Joseph Sargent’s cultishly beloved thriller, feels at once decades ahead of its time and a relic from a long-lost golden era. Released in 1974– a year before Jaws kicked off what we now consider the age of the contemporary blockbuster– its devilishly simple premise anticipates such high-concept, white-knuckle thrill rides as Die Hard and Speed. Yet it is just as crucially a character piece, with a deceptively idiosyncratic rhythm more aligned with such New Hollywood post-potboilers as Dog Day Afternoon or The Conversation. The resulting film is a delight to watch today; familiar enough to be accessible to modern audiences, but just odd enough to keep them guessing.
Walter Matthau plays Zachary Garber, an MTA cop who picks the worst possible day off to drop by the office: a subway car full of commuters has been detached and taken hostage by four hijackers, identifying only by the color-coded aliases of Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Grey (Quentin Tarantino was clearly taking notes). Hopping on the phone with leader Mr. Blue (an icy Robert Shaw, not yet the ruthless Quint from Jaws), Garber decides the only option is to give the criminals their requested million-dollar ransom and shepherd the hostages to safety. Getting the money to them, however, is easier said than done: Garber is forced to play mediator not just to the hijackers, but also to cranky subway comptrollers, hot-headed policemen, and a hilariously ineffectual mayor (Lee Wallace, who coincidentally or not would later play the mayor of Gotham City in Tim Burton’s Batman).
It’s easy to imagine how Pelham would look as a later-vintage action film, even if one hasn’t seen the 2009 remake (full disclosure: I have not). Garber would be a rugged man of action, your John McClane-style working class hero who becomes a one-man wrecking crew when called upon by duty. The hijackers would be mustache-twirlers, likely tied to the evil-other ideology of the moment, gleefully executing hostages and issuing screenplay-clever taunts. The whole thing would build to a climactic shootout in which our hero charges into the fray, vanquishing the villain once and for all and rescuing the hostages (but not before outrunning a fireball down the narrow subway tunnel). The music swells, and we fade to credits as Garber reunites with his improbably hot ex-wife.
There’s nothing wrong with this hypothetical movie necessarily, but I’m endlessly glad that The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is not it. Garber feels like a real person– maybe more patient and quick-witted than most, but still one who solves his problems in a rational and down-to-earth manner. We learn a little bit about the hijackers– a British ex-mercenary, a couple low-level Mafia hoods– but mostly they’re just a group of bad dudes with a clever plan to make a lot of money. And while gunfire is exchanged more than once, the film’s denouement consists of a single conversation– albeit an impossibly tense one, ending in one of cinema’s most perfect freeze-frames (which I would not dream of spoiling here). In other words, it contains a lot more sitting down than contemporary action junkies may be accustomed to.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s any less thrilling. On the contrary, the tension of Pelham lies in the maddening realism of its characters. With the sole exception of Shaw’s Mr. Blue, one gets the impression that every person involved is mostly just annoyed that they have to deal with this shit. Garber is roped in on his day off, and though he’s committed to saving the day, it’s clear that he’s not happy that it’s fallen on him. The MTA resent that they have to stop the trains, and the NYPD resent that they have to work around the MTA. The mayor, mostly consigned to his bed with the flu, resents that he has to do anything at all (in the film’s funniest and most relatable running gag, every single person in New York appears to despise the mayor, booing him every time he shows his face). The hostages (credited simply with such slice-of-’70s sobriquets as “The Mother,” “The Hippie,” “The Homosexual,” and “The Pimp”) seem as angry that their day has been disrupted as they are afraid for their lives. Even the other hijackers, like wheelman Mr. Green (the always-great Martin Balsam), seem to grow increasingly weary with the caper. Everyone is rushing against the clock, both to save the hostages’ lives and so they can get this over with already.
As a lifelong Bostonian, I can’t claim to be able to authoritatively declare a “definitive” New York Movie, but if I had to I would rank The Taking of Pelham One Two Three well above many more widely heralded films. It’s grungy, but not art-direction grungy; you could probably post a frame on one of those “Vintage New York” photo groups without many realizing it isn’t an authentic snapshot. The cast is a wonderful assemblage of character actors and mugs, including Hector Elizondo, Doris Roberts, a young and sprightly Jerry Stiller, and Tony Roberts, Woody Allen’s sidekick from Annie Hall and a number of his other Early, Funny Films. And while the events of the film are extraordinary, the characters mostly greet them with an “Only in New York!” shrug. It’s one of the funniest and most unpredictable action movies of the ‘70s– just make sure your hayfever is in check before attending.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
dir. Joseph Sargent
Screens (on 35mm!) Wednesday, 5/18, 7:30pm @ Somerville Theatre
Introduction by Jason Bailey, author of Fun City Cinema
Part of the ongoing series: Hard Boiled Double Features
Double feature w/ Charley Varrick (also on 35mm!)