Directed by: Joseph Sargent
Written by: Peter Stone
Four trenchcoated older men with color-coded code names, wearing old-fashioned hats, black-rimmed glasses and ersatz mustaches, board a crowded downtown No. 6 train (called, by transit staff, "Pelham One-Two-Three" for its departure time and point of origin) stop by stop, starting at Fifty-Ninth Street. By Thirty-Third, they've overtaken the two conductors at gunpoint. ("I didn't know these things went backwards!" exclaims one when no longer in control of his train.) I remember that once I was stuck on a train, traveling from Manhattan to Brooklyn, in a tunnel, between stops at a dead halt for about forty five minutes. I didn't even have a seat, and as my knees buckled in a Guantanamo-style stress position, I thought it'd be tough for life to get much worse without a firebomb attack, an extended Giuliani mayoralty or a hijacking. In The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, eighteen New Yorkers are stuck in a similar situation, the victims of a stalled, mid-tunnel train...and a hijacking; the "terrorists" demand one million dollars in cash in one hour, or they'll start picking off the passengers. You can only begin to imagine the awful terror they feel, but still—at least they had seats.
When the hijackers first threaten to shoot anyone who moves, the passengers all laugh; one wino remains passed-out and unawares, while others don't understand and need the threats translated into Spanish, of which, of course, several people on the car are capable. Oh, New York! The Taking of Pelham... is a marvelous snapshot of New York, during the 1970's in particular—a New York of "terr-lits" and "fifty-foist streets"—on par if not better at capturing the time and place than more legendary contemporary vehicles by the likes of Scorsese, Lumet and Woody Allen. (It's also a fantastically efficient crime/thriller, and its influence is clearly visible on such vehicles as Inside Man, Speed and Reservoir Dogs.)
City government is lampooned, from the reviled and impotent mayor (of Kochian stature and temperament), debilitated by the flu—it's been going around, symbolically, in the film's decimated Big Apple—and seen receiving a rectal thermometer (a cheap shot at the rumors of his homosexuality?), to the transit police who spend most of the day sitting around reading the newspaper. It's suggested that New York, which at the time was in serious financial straits, couldn't even afford to pay the ransom if it wanted, until the mayor's wife speaks the politicians' language: "A million dollars sounds like a lot of money," she says, "[but] just think what you're gonna get in return—18 sure votes." (The mayor's wife is played by Doris Roberts; seasoned character actors and familiar faces, many known as comedians, dominate the frames of Pelham, notably including Jerry Stiller and Tony Roberts.)
Every actor in Pelham is marvelously authentic and convincingly cynical, and its their credibility that makes the script work, which is hilarious in the wise-cracking mode of your legendarily typical jaded and hard-boiled New Yorker. "Screw the goddam passengers," barks a train supervisor, delivering probably the film's most famous line, "what do they expect for their thirty-five cents? To live forever?" (Initially, it's tough for anyone to take the hijackers seriously.) But Pelham is hilarious without ever succumbing to being goofy, without ever surrendering its grit or its gravity. There isn't a moment in which you don't doubt the sincerity of lead hijacker Robert Shaw when he threatens to kill everyone on-board, and while Walter Matthau, as a Transit Authority lieutenant (under the direction of Joseph Sargent, whom he ought to outrank) is a source of constant crack-ups, the audience never doubts for a minute that he has the smarts and seriousness necessary to save everyone's life and catch the bad guys. In the end, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three reminds us why New York City has always been such a great place to live—sure, it can be dangerous (well, not so much anymore) but, like the film, it's a hell of a good time, without parallel.