19 August 2007

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Directed by: Joseph Sargent
Written by: Peter Stone

Grade: A

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.


james flames said...

i remember seeing this a few years back at the film forum (i thinks it's playing there again this summer, no?), and wow - it's funny, but it's not really a comedy; it's thrilling, tho not a typical 'thriller'. and i remember the acting was fantastic and the ending did not disappoint one bit.
glad you reminded me of this one-thanks, i'd like to watch it again.

james flames said...

by the way, you mentioned Inside Man - i don't remember if you ever reviewed that one, and i'd love to see one (if i may make the request. in fact there are lots of requests i have for you, but we can start with that one).

Anonymous said...

Yeah this was just playing at Film Forum, I think while I was on vacation so I had to catch up on DVD. Anyway, you're exactly right--the movie's not a comedy, but it's funny as hell. A definite must-see...I'd say "classic" if the term weren't so overused.

Anyway, I haven't reviewed Inside Man, no, but I can give you a quick impression: I really like it, especially the NY-tone ("I got Mets tickets tonight, Pedro's pitching!" "Ah, they'll just lose like they always do"; or, "I didn't say I speak Albanian, my ex-wife is Albanian...") but once the bank robbery is over it goes on WAY too long instead of just ending, and the whole Jodie Foster subplot seems unnecessary, a conspicuous ruse to get a part for a woman into the otherwise male dominated movie...

But the actual bank robbery stuff is pretty great; for the most part, it's a very efficient heist picture. B+ I'd probably say.

By the way, Spike Lee's making his Broadway debut in a year or two with a revival of Stalag 17, if you haven't heard.

Anonymous said...

I just watched this film for the first time on DVD and it was such an incredible find. The 70's had lots of these little, cool thrillers and this one must have gotten lost in the shuffle.

What I liked about it is that it tried hard to be realistic. Think about "Speed" and they had a bus jump a 50 foot gap in an high on-ramp against all the laws of physics.

Plus I liked the way Pelham kept the transit workers real. And there was no big shoot out with guns sounding like cannons. Matthau's "Z" used his mind to solve the crime not his fists.

I'm going to recommend this movie to anyone who is willing to listen.

Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

You need to check your facts, this movie came out four years before Ed Koch became Mayor.

Anonymous said...

That's true, although Koch was a NYC political figure at the time.

Anonymous said...

Insofar as stature is concerned, it was Beame who was short. Koch, if I'm not mistaken, is pretty tall.