By Rob Wolejsza
with Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller, Tony Roberts. Directed by Joseph Sargent.Rated R. 105 min.
There have been countless movies filmed in New York City, but I can't think of any that capture the "New York attitude" quite like "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three". New Yorkers as a general rule are known for their surly attitude and seen-it-all-before demeanor, and "Pelham" is
overflowing with moments that perfectly illustrate what it's like to be a native. Even though it was released in 1974, and there are many details that haven't aged well, the cynical humor and witty, hard-edged dialogue still crackle like the film was made yesterday.
The screenplay by Peter Stone is somewhat freely adapted from a bestselling novel by John Godey. It's plot is described in the simplest strokes: Four ruthless men, armed to the teeth with fearsome-looking machine guns, board a downtown subway train and proceed to take the first car's
passengers hostage. Their demand from the city: one million dollars in cash, delivered in exactly one hour. The lead hijacker (Robert Shaw)explains the consequences of inaction: "I will kill one hostage for every minute you're late."
The demands are read to Lt. Zachary Garber (the late Walter Matthau) of the transit police who, with his wrinkled face and rumpled appearance makes him look like he slept in the office. (His first scene, in fact, finds him asleep on a bench at Transit Command Central)
As Garber attempts to deal with the madman holding his beloved subway captive and the tension builds, the film cuts back and forth between Command Central; the hijackers and passengers trapped deep within the bowels of the city; and the city fathers, who argue incessantly over the ability of the city to pay out the ransom.
The scene involving the mayor and his inner circle is a perfect example of the film's ability to find delicious black humor in the midst of a dire situation. The city doesn't have the money to pay, claims the comptroller. The city has to pay, insists the Transit Commissioner. (The
police commissioner, ready to send his men in to fight, abstains.) The mayor asks what the people will think. His deputy (Tony Roberts) helpfully explains: "The Jews'll support you, likewise the blacks, and the Puerto Ricans won't give a shit."
Eventually they agree to make the payoff, leading to a hair-raising series of close calls, near-misses, and increasingly desperate measures as the clock relentlessly counts down to the proposed slaughter of innocent passengers. And all the while, the characters use cyncism as a way to defuse this impossible situation.
As Garber, Matthau shows how easily he could slip into a role. His transit cop has (seemingly) seen it all before, and the hijacking just reinforces his belief that anything can happen, especially in New York City. He has an absolutely priceless sequence near the beginning, as he
plays tour guide to group of Japanese men. The buildup and payoff of the sequence is a perfectly played piece of social embarrassment. But Matthau occasionally lets Garber's tough side show, and he's just as believable
when dealing with the hijackers.
Shaw, in one of his last great roles (between his con man in "The Sting" and his old salt in "Jaws") is colder than ice. His clipped manner and impatience with the wheels of bureaucracy leave no doubt that he is a man of his word. If the money isn't there in an hour, he will kill someone.
His crew (Hector Elizondo, Martin Balsam, and Earl Hindman) are able to create whole characters using little quirks and snatches of dialogue, as when Elizondo gets into a hilariously heated argument with a hooker onthe train.
Jospeh Sargent's direction is tight and focused, with not shot wasted. He ratchets up the suspense at just the right moments so attention never flags. And he gets such natural performances from his actors that at times we think we could be watching a documentary of a real incident.
I first saw "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" when I was about ten years old, and it made such a huge impression on me. I remember not only nodding my head in recognition of the "New York attitude" but also being of scared senseless being hijacked on the subway.
It's a tribute to the film that it slides so easily from black comedy to spine-chilling tension.
"Pelham" is an absolutely fascinating thriller. If you've never seen "Pelham", the recently released MGM DVD is a perfect place to start. I own the old MGM laserdisc version, but the DVD has sharper, truer colors, with the dark sequences inside the subway looking much better than ever before. The disc also includes an original trailer
from the film's release in 1974, and it's actually a pretty good one for the time period.