I know there aren’t many subway train hijack movies from which to choose. There’s one from 1974 and its remake from 2009. I am unaware of any others. This week I’m writing about the former. It’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and I think it’s pretty darn good.
Like The French Connection (1971) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), Pelham really puts across that gritty, dirty feeling of New York City. I don’t know if it was the film stock or the directing techniques, probably a combination of the two. Or maybe it was just that the Big Apple was that way in the ’60s and ’70s: Gritty, dirty, overcrowded, cynical, sarcastic. Maybe that’s what happens in really big cities. In Pelham, many of the characters are so jaded by big city life that when a potentially deadly situation occurs they react by getting angry about how it’s messing up their day, getting in the way of their work. “I’m trying to run a railroad!” was one of the complaints.
The potentially deadly situation is the hijacking of a subway train: Pelham 123. Four heavily armed men take control of one of the cars of that train (they cut loose all the others) and its 18 passengers. The hijackers disguise themselves with mustaches, glasses, and the rather mundane clothes of the average middle-aged man of the 1970s. They go by code names based on colors: Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), and Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw). No, Mr. Pink? Oh, right, that’s a different movie.
Mr. Blue is the leader of the group. He means business. He’s cold and uncaring. He issues the demand of $1 million to be paid for the release of the hostages. He gives city officials one hour to put the money in his hands or, for every minute past the deadline, he will kill a passenger. Shaw is excellent as Mr. Blue, a former mercenary soldier with no qualms about killing.
Mr. Green is a former motorman for the New York subway system. He’s angry at his former bosses for firing him on what he thinks was a bum rap. He brings the knowledge of the subway system, on how to drive the train, and he’s instrumental in the hijackers’ getaway plan. After all, they can’t exactly fly the train to Cuba. The two other hijackers are crowd control. One, Mr. Grey, is a little unhinged.
All these actors, along with the actors playing the hostages, do a fine job. In fact, the hostages aren’t cliches, although they could easily have been. But the man who makes the movie is its star: Walter Matthau. Matthau is one of those actors who makes a movie better by just being in it. He’s great as Lt. Garber, a Transit Authority cop. He has the task of communicating with Mr. Blue, trying to buy time to meet his demands and then trying to out-think him to prevent the hijackers’ escape.
Matthau plays his character so well. He has that world-weary jaded side, but he brings humor to the role. He also brings a feeling of dire seriousness when his tolerance of his bull-headed colleague, who is more concerned about running a railroad than saving lives, gets stretched to the breaking point. It’s a satisfying moment for me as I was getting more than a little annoyed with that fellow. I’m sure that’s what director, Joseph Sargent, intended.
The interplay of all the main characters works very well. Especially between Lt. Garber and Mr. Blue. I also like the play between Mr. Blue and Mr. Green, who might be a little too soft for this job.
There is humor throughout the film that works most of the time. It gets a little cartoonish when we meet the Mayor (Lee Wallace). He seems to be a send-up of Mayor Ed Koch, however this Mayor is very unpopular with the voters. He’s timid and indecisive. He’s weak as a leader. In fact, it’s his Deputy Mayor (Tony Roberts) who seems to be running the city. As if these flaws in the Mayor’s character weren’t bad enough, he also has the flu and everyone has to know it. The sequences with the Mayor are a little weak, but are necessary to establish how the city decides to pay the ransom and to lead up to a joke, delivered by the Mayor’s wife (Doris Roberts), about his chances at getting votes.
There’s also a joke paid off late in the film. The joke stems from Garber learning one of the hostages is an undercover cop. The name of this cop is unknown. Also unknown is whether the cop is a man or a woman. That’s the set up of the joke. And just so the audience doesn’t forget, Garber states three times throughout the movie the fact that the undercover cop’s gender is unknown. It seems odd that he keeps mentioning it, until the joke comes. Then it makes sense. It is a lot of build up though.
Those minor criticisms aside, the movie moves along at a good pace with excellent performances and (mostly) believable characters. And the final shot is pure Walter Matthau greatness!
Oh! And the soundtrack is awesome!
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