Tag Archives: New York City

You know what’s a really good subway train hijack movie?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Oh! And the soundtrack is awesome!

Packing Peanuts!

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Mars Ain’t The Kind Of Place For St. Paul Kids

The legendary Minneapolis nightclub First Avenue & 7th Street Entry might just be the best nightclub in the world. Well, I can’t say that for sure, because I haven’t been to many other nightclubs and I haven’t been to First Avenue for a couple years now. And I’m not certain about how the club was before I started frequenting it in the mid-80s, but from what I’ve learned from my elders, it was a pretty damn cool place when it opened in 1970 as The Depot right on through its name changes (Uncle Sam’s then Sam’s finally First Avenue) and to today.

I do know its better than at least one nightclub in New York City. Actually, maybe I don’t. I’ll try to make that clear in a moment.

It was the early 90s when two friends of mine (John and David) and I went on a road trip out East. A week-long, whirlwind trip driving through several states and in and out of Canada. We didn’t stay very long in any one place. We were on the move. We had plenty to see.

The main plan was to go to a record store in Lowell, MA. It was called RRRecords and it was David’s choice of destination. But, along the way there and back, we figured we might as well check out a couple other places of interest. Toronto, Niagara Falls, Boston, the Atlantic coast, and New York City made the secondary list of destinations. We ended up scratching Boston off the list to extend our time in NYC.

Our visit to NYC was the longest stay in any of our points of interest. We spent a day and a half in the Big Apple. The first evening, we shuttled in from Newark, NJ, where we had our motel room, to catch a few sites and reconnoiter for our planned full day assault the following day. That evening we had a couple beers at a bar called Downtown Beruit, had a slice or two of authentic NY-style pizza, and went up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

The plan for the next day was to go into town in the morning and spend the entire day seeing as many of the sites as we could. We rode the subway, walked through Central Park, laid on benches at the base of the World Trade Center, visited the Guggenheim gift store (the museum was closed), and valiantly searched for public restrooms. You’d think a city that size would have more public restrooms. 800 million people and only one restroom for public use. (That’s professional hyperbole, folks.)

The plan for the evening was to find a nightclub and stay until closing (5am) and then find some other place to hang out until the first shuttle brought us back to Newark.

John was the main planner of the trip, so he busied himself scouring the free weekly papers for an interesting club at which to spend the night. He found one that touted itself as consisting of five or six stories of dance floors, each offering different genres of danceable tunes. Sounded cool to us.

We worked our way over to the part of town where this club was situated and along the way we stopped in several of the excellent specialty shops New York had to offer. And in these shops were stacks and stacks of cards and flyers for nightclubs, all offering some special deal if you brought that card with you: Free cover or a free drink, something like that. The clubs were just begging for our business. The club John had found was right in there begging along with the rest of them.

So, we got to this multi-floored haven of entertainment, but it wasn’t quite opening time yet. Just along side the club was an empty lot, so the three of us sat there, our backs leaning against the building. In the corner of the lot, about 30 feet from where we sat was a sizable pile of rubble. It was a pile of bricks, busted up cinder blocks, broken bottles, cans, twisted rebar, and a few tires. There was something else about that rubble pile: It was crawling with rats. Quite a few.

Occasionally, a rat would skitter its way along the base of the wall in our direction. We’d toss a few rocks or broken bottles or bricks, whatever was handy, in its direction and that would send it scurrying back to the pile. It was kinda fun. I don’t think we actually hit any of the critters, but we did get one to jump pretty high.

The three of us had made it a point to do our best to not look like tourists on this trip. We didn’t even bring cameras. We wanted to blend in. However, John and I each had a shopping bag containing items we had purchased that day. We figured we’d just check them in at the coat check once we got in this magical club.

But the wheels in John’s head were turning and he hit upon an idea that would keep us not looking like tourists and save us a couple bucks.

“Jim,” he said.

“Yeah, John,” I replied.

“No one in their right mind would think of approaching that rubble pile covered in rats, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, wouldn’t that make it the perfect place to hide these bags. There’s no food in them, so the rats wouldn’t be interested and we wouldn’t have to pay the coat check.”

“John, I think you have something there.”

And that’s what we did. We threw rocks at the pile and scared off the rats. We then dropped our bags into the center of an old tire and quickly retreated, letting the rats guard our goods. We then went around to the front door as opening time was upon us.

Several bouncers came out and set up barricades to keep an open area at the front and help direct the customers into the club. The doors opened. No one was allowed in. The three of us weren’t the only ones waiting and more people began to gather. No one was allowed in.

Two “club kids” sauntered up to the doors and in they went. The crowd continued to gather and wait as a few more “club kids” arrived and were ushered right in.

The bouncers just stood and acted as though we weren’t even there.

And still we waited.

There were far more people waiting outside than had been allowed into the club. There were plenty of paying customers waiting to get in and spend their money, but still we waited. It was getting ridiculous.

Remember, this was the early 90s. The Disco hey days of Studio 54 were long gone, but the bouncers picking the “right” people to go in attitude was still in play. “Hey! You guys are begging for business! We have your free cover offers! Let us in!”

I’m not sure how long we put up with this, but eventually John and David turned to me and said, “Screw these guys! If we leave now we can catch the last shuttle back to Newark. Should we go?”

“Yep. Screw these guys.”

John and I retrieved our stuff from the rats’ nest. John made me grab my own bag, even though he got to the pile first and could easily have grabbed it himself. Thanks, John.

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Under the eyeballs is where we sat with the rats.

I haven’t mentioned the name of the club, because over the years my certainty of the name has faded. I had thought it was called Mars, but I wasn’t sure. However, it turns out my memory is correct.

Last month, a friend of mine spotted a short video biography of musician/DJ Moby. In it Moby takes viewers on a tour on NYC and shows what had become of some of his favorite places. One of those places was a nightclub which, in 1989, was where he got his first job as a DJ. It was called… Mars! In the video, you can see the wall we sat by waiting for the club to open. You can’t see the rats, though.

I was able to find a Facebook group page populated by people who either worked or hung out at Mars. The picture I’ve posted of the club from those days comes from that page and seeing it confirmed that that was the club. I recognize the “medallions” on the doors.

Before I sign off, I do have a question for those Mars bouncers.

Do you know what the bouncers at First Avenue & 7th Street Entry do with the gathered crowd waiting to get in when the club opens its doors?

They let the people in.

Packing Peanuts!

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