MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Action-Crime Thriller/Stars: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Héctor Elizondo, Earl Hindman, James Broderick, Dick O’Neill, Lee Wallace, Tom Pedi, Tony Roberts, Doris Roberts, Jerry Stiller, Nathan George, Beatrice Winde, Rudy Bond, Kenneth McMillan, Julius Harris/ Runtime: 104 minutes
I feel it should be said that whenever either general movie lovers or film historians engage in discussion about the defining films set in The Big Apple during the 1970s, some of the films that both groups tend to be attached at the hip toward include such iconic films as “Taxi Driver” and “The French Connection.” To be fair, those films are definitely brilliant examples because these are films that rather than just simply using New York City as a location to set their movies in, utilized New York City to showcase just how crime-ridden and indifference-stricken things had become to the point that it really felt like the city became, for a while, quite synonymous with desperation and mentally damaging, a pair of things coincidentally showcased in last year’s Joker to great effect. Yet if there was ever an entry on the list that I honestly feel people don’t mention nearly as much as they should, it would have to be a film from 1974 known as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. A film that despite also threading the idea of the criminal element in an urban environment into its movie quilt, is also able to mostly avoid any shrewd self-analysis in favor of bringing its terrific source material courtesy of John Godey to thrilling and quite vibrant life. Indeed this is a powerfully effective film that is both wonderfully cast and helmed by Joseph Sargent who chooses to wonderfully invest more in a tighter form of telling a story that has no time to catch a breath and really consider all of the options at its disposal. Finally it should also be noted that The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a wonderful snowball of a film that manages to utilize the various streets, alleys, backways, and whathaveyou of New York City brilliantly as it showcases both how brilliant some criminals think they are and how confused law enforcement can get in trying to stop them and their schemes. Indeed once this film gets underway it does not stop for one second thus giving moviegoers a genuinely well-acted and quite thrilling ride made during a storied time in cinema where grit and contemplation were able to walk hand in hand and deliver product of a quality nature.
The plot is as follows: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three opens as we in the audience get to witness the beginning of the execution of a scheme to forcibly hijack a subway train in the heart of The Big Apple courtesy of a quartet of criminals going by the code names Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown respectively. Having swiftly gone into action, and taken control of a car loaded with a group of commuters and also having brought the car to a grinding and screeching halt right in the middle of the line thus throwing one big wrench into the system, Mr. Blue, as the defacto leader of this heist team, soon makes contact with the New York City Transit Authority with a list of demands that should they either be not met or anyone try to interfere with the plan will result in the horrific murder of the hostages aboard. Soon enough the city of New York sends a response in the form of a New York Transit Police Lieutenant by the name of Garber taking charge of the growing crisis who aims to try and create a peaceful, however fragile, relationship with the gang of crooks and their leader whilst also trying to cobble together a rescue op of some kind. Yet while attempting to fulfill the crooks’ demands as well as creating a plan to deal with them, Garber soon has to witness as the situation goes every which way possible. Thus a deadly game soon emerges that takes the form of the police above the ground, the armed men carrying out their daring scheme and trying to get away with, among other things, a million dollars, the man deadset on thwarting them, and the people whose very lives are at risk simply by being in the wrong car at the wrong time…
Now this is a film that, right off the bat, should be noted as most certainly not having an issue in the way of introducing us to the characters at the heart of its riveting narrative. Indeed thanks to the power of a concept known as directorial economy we as an audience not only get to witness everyone involved in this deadly tennis match rounded up, but their various personalities and, for our main protagonist, sheer boredom in his line of work, are quickly yet quite efficiently established in as little time as possible. Indeed a large part of this has to be attributed to the fact that this film’s screenplay is one which truly relishes in explaining things to the audience on the fly, and as such, is able to sneak in expository information, clues towards the hijackers’ plan, and other important details and then sit back and let these things sneak up on the viewer when they least expect them. Yes the back and forth between Blue, the head of the criminal quartet, and Garber, the stoic yet also tired career man leaping head on into the action, is established, but there is scarcely any time to really stop and think too long about the more intricate details. Thus we get a film that is phenomenally lean, but terrifically assembled by Gerald Greenberg and Robert Q. Lovett who manage to do a terrific job at both keeping the timing on track, pun intended, and conserving the sense of rising tension and suspense whilst also balancing both sides of the film’s narrative wonderfully and showing us just who these men are without throwing tempo on the bonfire in its place. Finally also worthy of praise in this particular section would have to be down-to-earth and street level work in the cinematography department done courtesy of Owen Roizman for how it maintains a visual tempo that matches the one set by everything else in the film. Indeed even though the work in the various departments behind the camera are all of a subtle nature, they are also terrific in their ability of making the work done in them truly iconic plus lived-in which ultimately results in a film that is both on-the-money yet also quite modest about what it manages to accomplish as a result.
It should also be noted that from a design perspective, this film is quite smoothly put together, and does a wonderful job at conjuring up a rising sense of suspense and unease as the level of activity increases during the time we as an audience are inserted into the Transit Authority Command Center, and watching as a truly beleaguered and increasingly exasperated Garber try to keep the criminals below him placated whilst also not only heading up the op to rescue the passengers, but also do all of this whilst surrounded by stunned and argumentative co-workers. Yet rather than just focus completely on the communication back and forth between the 2 parties, the film’s script also quite ingeniously branches out and tries to cover every aspect of the crime possible including the cops flooding the area, the ill and indecisive mayor being woken up to try and actually be an asset to what is going on rather than a liability, and the arranging to pay the criminals their requested ransom thus starting a ticking clock of sorts since now they have to move this money as fast as humanely, and then some, possible. To that end, we see that the film’s helmer is able to spice things up in the film courtesy of the delivery of the money soon transforming into a race across the Big Apple and also the criminals having to potentially make good on their threats when the cops get too close to comfort to the subway car. Yet, rather than just have the cops be the only ones to turn up the heat, we also get some of that courtesy of one of the crooks being one who takes great pleasure in giving the passengers utter grief and another finds himself stricken with a cold that manages to come be an integral part in the narrative. Thus what we are left with is a terrific look at a situation that is quickly becoming a time bomb, and any wrong move by anybody, be they cop or criminal, could quickly spell disaster for everyone involved, but especially for the hostages aboard the train…..
Now in regards to the cast, each and every single actor is absolutely at the top of their game. Indeed, as the leader of the quartet of criminals at the heart of the story, Shaw is terrifically ruthless yet also calculated as Mr. Blue. Indeed we may not learn that much about him during the course of the film, but Shaw still embodies the character to the point that he feels less like a character and more like the enigma of a real-life person you are only merely crossing paths with at this one moment in his life. We also get terrifically dependable support work from Martin Balsam and Hector Elizondo as two of the other criminals even if one is significantly more reserved and less trigger-happy shall we say than the other. On the other side of the coin, we get Walter Matthau who does truly dynamic work in this as their pursuer Zachary Garber who initially only becomes involved due to simply being in the room at the time everything starts happening, but by the end is in it for the sole purposes of not only catching these men, but in ensuring that justice truly is served and the people aboard the train are safe and sound. Ultimately though the true hero, and almost its own distinct character in a way, in this particular cops vs. robbers saga would have to be the film’s composer David Shire. I say this because this man manages to bring to the film one of the finest scores I have heard for a film in this particular genre as it manages to combine both a jazzy sensibility, but also a riveting heartbeat of sorts to the film which drives the film forward in a truly memorable manner.
All in all I think it is safe to say that there truly isn’t anything that could make one come to appreciate this film more save for perhaps one distinct thing. That of course would have to be the decent, but nowhere near on the level of the original 2009 remake brought to us by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta. A film, that despite the best efforts of the 2 leads and a decent supporting cast, sadly possesses nowhere near the level of wit, thrills, or just general vibe that this film manages to possess seemingly effortlessly. It should also be noted that sadly Tony Scott in the case of the remake was also nowhere even close to matching the management of suspense that 1974 Pelham helmer Sargent was able to accomplish to say nothing of how Sargent manages to keep a steady hand over how extreme the film gets from the low-key opening all the way to its spot-on ending. Indeed The Taking of Pelham One Two Three may not be as operatic as The Godfather, as magical as Star Wars, or as intense as Jaws, but it nevertheless most assuredly is one of the finer films to come from that incredible decade known as the 1970s. Indeed this is a film that manages to display both a truly remarkably talented cast operating at the height of their acting abilities as well as impressive attention to just what makes the thriller genre of cinema work as well as it does and using that foundation to create a thrill ride that is an absolute joy that you will want to watch time and time again. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a train to catch….. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Taking of Pelham One Two Three “74” a solid 4 out of 5.