1974’s ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ is a smart, keen thriller

Walter Matthau plots to save the day in 1974's 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three'
Walter Matthau plots to save the day in 1974’s ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’

The number 6 train out of Pelham Park pulls to an unscheduled stop between stations, nesting in a cavernous tunnel below 23rd Street in Manhattan. A dignified man with a mustache and glasses wearing a wool coat and fedora sits in the conductor’s booth. He is not the conductor. As the Manhattan transit system spirals into chaos, the figure calmly retrieves the two-way radio beside him, calling command central.

“Now listen trainmaster,” the man says with a light British accent, “Your locomotive has been hijacked by a group of heavily armed men. We are holding seventeen hostages in the first car. I am quite prepared to kill any or all of them if my demands are not met to the letter. Have I made myself quite clear?”

The army of dispatchers and transit police go quiet with the announcement. The working-class employees sit riveted by the hijacker’s call. Doyle, the desk trainmaster, is not in the mood. “You’re out of your skull!” Doyle barks at the voice.

“Be that as it may,” the Brit replies, “take out a pen and write down my list of demands.” So begins the set up for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a crowd-pleasing, edge-of-your-seat crime drama that remains as thoroughly entertaining today as it was the day of its controversial, 1974 release.

To understand the film and the controversy that surrounded it, you have to get a picture of Manhattan in the seventies. Street level crime was rampant. Businesses were fleeing the city for the ‘burbs. The chasm between black and white New Yorkers was growing wider, setting the stage for the tragic events of Crown Heights and Howard Beach a decade later. Drugs, which had always been an element of city life, were getting harder and starting to flourish, corrupting some neighborhoods while devouring others. Forty-second Street and it’s surrounding West Side blocks were an unofficial red light district, choked with porn, pimps and the constant threat of violence. Many feared traveling after dark, and nobody — nobody — was dumb enough to walk through Central Park at night.

In a calculated rescue attempt, Mayor John Lindsey began petitioning film companies to come to New York. The plan was to make Manhattan the new location of choice for Hollywood filmmakers. Film production meant money for the cash-strapped city and local businesses alike. Film production, Lindsey reasoned, meant a shot at returning Manhattan to the glory of its legendary heyday, if only on the big screen. Lindsey’s efforts drew nine productions to the town in 1973, including The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford and Al Pacino’s good cop drama, Serpico. It seemed New York was back on track, in the movies and in real life.

Then came The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Buzz on the original novel, written by best-selling author Morton Freedgood under the pseudonym John Godey, was so strong that the film rights were snatched up before the novel went to press. Pelham was a big production, featuring some of the most well-known actors of the time.

There were just a few problems.

The story posited New York’s subway system as vulnerable to terrorism and painted Manhattan as fertile ground for crime. Adapting the novel, screenwriter Peter Stone (1776) delivered a cast of characters so arrogant and foul-mouthed they validated the negative worldview of New Yorkers Lindsey’s campaign was meant to subvert. Others feared the film’s explicit dramatization of a subway car-jacking would provide a ready-made blueprint for a copycat crime.

Despite the controversy, Lindsey’s city cooperated fully with the production, giving United Artists a subway tunnel in Brooklyn that hadn’t been used since the mid-40’s, a train, a platform and enough city personnel to get the job done.

Whether you’re a collector of iconic, ‘70’s classics, hard boiled crime flicks, or simply a fan of great movies set in The Big Apple, The Taking of Pelham One Two Threeis a must have. Period. Like George Forman, I personally guarantee it!

Freedgood’s original novel takes its title from transit code. Pelham is the station from which the hijacked car starts its run. One Two Three is a reference to the time the train pulls from that station, hence, 1:23pm. It’s a minor detail, really. WhatPelham is more concerned with is the deadly game of cat and mouse played by a handful of transit police and a ruthless band of terrorists.

Contemporary Hollywood filmmakers obsessed with explosives and hyperactive acrobatics should take a lesson from Pelham, a film that delivers an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride without so much as an oblique camera angle. It’s a near-documentary approach that, nonetheless, manages to deliver one of the most kick-ass crime thrillers ever shot on location in Manhattan.

As bad guys go, they don’t get much better than the heavies in Pelham. The band of identically disguised hijackers is a volatile mix of personalities. So tenuous is their union that none is trusted with so much as their compatriot’s names. Instead, their names are coded: Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Gray. If the color coded names sound familiar, they should. Writer-Director Quentin Tarentino paid homage to Pelham when he created his own band of identically dressed hoodlums with color-coded names in his first film, Reservoir Dogs.

As crime films go, Pelham is uniquely amusing. It is filled with enough jokes and clever one-liners to nearly rate as comedy. But writer Stone and director Joseph Sargent (Like Something God Made) wisely play their bad guys straight. With little more than their presence, the hijackers create a tension so nerve-racking that the deaths of innocent people feel both shocking and inevitable.

Earl Hindman, as Mr. Brown, is a genuinely disquieting presence, silent and brooding with a crazy man’s glare. Hindman would hit a career high years later on TV as Wilson, the always-obscured next door neighbor of Tim Allen on Home Improvement. Hector Elizondo (Raising Helen) nearly dominates the group as the insubordinate Mr. Gray. As the gang’s wild card, Elizondo raises the stakes throughout with his itchy trigger finger and naked contempt for Mr. Blue, the group’s leader. Martin Balsam (Cape Fear1962 and 1991) plays against his nice guy type as Mr. Green, the disgruntled TA worker and most reluctant terrorist. Balsam brings a sympathetic quality to his role which humanizes the others by association.

Robert Shaw is a stone-cold criminal in 1974's 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three'
Robert Shaw is a stone-cold criminal in 1974’s ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’

Robert Shaw, who could chew scenery with the best of them, shows none of his broad theatricality here as Mr. Blue. Quite the contrary, his performance is a textbook case of small, telling moments. And always, there’s that implacable, Mr. Blue cool. Fresh from his last day of shooting on The Sting, Shaw proves the linchpin that holds the gang, and the film’s extended subway sequence, together. In a bit of wicked business, Mr. Blue sits in the conductor’s booth of the hijacked train patiently completing a crossword puzzle as the city scrambles above to meet his impossible demands. As the cops race to get the ransom to the hijackers, transit police officer Lieutenant Zachary Garber tries to buy the hostages more time, calling down to the train with his radio.

For this reporter, the brightest jewel in the crown of Pelham’S many achievements is the casting of veteran comic actor Walter Matthau (Grumpy Old Men) as Lt. Garber, the cop doing his best from command central to save the lives of the hostages on the train. Matthau brings an immediate veracity to the transit workers in general, and the story as a whole. Popular ‘70’s comedian Jerry Stiller (father of Ben) and character actor Dick O’Neill are also welcome additions, giving the hard-edged New York types all the foul-mouthed attitude and quick wit the city’s residents are famous for. Considering Hollywood’s current penchant for square-jawed action heroes, it’s hard to believe there was a time when the unconventional leading man was given his hour to shine: Matthau with his wonderfully, hangdog looks, Stiller with his everyman appeal and O’Neill with his angry, bulldog delivery, help keep Pelham grounded in reality, thus elevating every defeat and victory to the level of opera.

“How ‘bout fifteen more minutes, Pelham?” Garber asks of Mr. Blue. “A lousy fifteen minutes.”
“Negative,” comes the answer.
“Ten minutes, then. What difference can ten minutes make to you?”
Below the city in the hijacked car, Mr. Green is growing nervous, knowing a hostage’s life hangs in the balance of Blue’s demands.
“What happens,” Green asks Blue, “if they can’t make it?” “Then we do,” Blue assures him, “what we said we’d do.”

It’s also instructive to present-day filmmakers to note that Pelham manages to rivet viewers to the action at hand without ever resorting to the overused hooks of the bad-seed student being chased down by his mentor, or loved ones in jeopardy, or good cops seeking revenge for a murdered partner or spouse. Pelham simply sets the ball rolling and imagines who would be forced to deal with the fallout. No death-defying heroics. Just a random selection of city workers doing their jobs.

After the Vietnam War, the disillusioned movie-going public began rejecting the candy-coated artifice of Hollywood for gritty neo-realism. The more stark the better. In this way, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was a film of its time. The cluttered transit system and its related offices featured therein are as unglamorous as their muted, dishwater paint jobs. The entire color palette of the film is a wash of soiled earth tones and the fading grays of a city filmed in the dead of winter.

Though the film never inspired a copycat hijacking, no train in the New York City transit system has left Pelham Park at 1:23 pm since the release of the film. Why tempt fate, the logic goes? A copycat incident would happen twenty-one years later when a popcorn flick called The Money Train would inspire a copycat crime against transit workers long after the controversy surrounding The Taking of Pelham One Two Three faded into history. Ironically, Money Train, like Pelham, featured the hijacking of a New York City subway car for money.

For soundtrack aficionados, it should be noted that Pelham features one of this reporter’s favorite themes. It’s a driving, chaotic mix of classical, jazz, and funk with a base of ethnic percussion and attitude to spare. I don’t pretend to know anything about the “chromatic pitches” or “twelve-tone methods” composer David Shire claims to have used to recreate Manhattan’s “organized chaos.” I just know that Shire’s score, with it’s washboard accents, electric guitar and organ riffs is still as in-your-face “bad” today (read: good) as a Sam Jackson tirade. Thankfully, the Retrograde Records reissue of Shire’s score is readily available, and comes with a comprehensive, 11-page booklet of liner notes.

As DVD’s go, this MGM release is damn near naked. The only extra is the original trailer for the film, which is pretty good. There are no commentaries, no behind the scenes documentaries or actor filmographies. The latter is a particularly surprising omission considering the long and impressive list of industry credits each actor brings to the table.

Spare as it is, the DVD does feature a widescreen version of the film, ideal for serious collectors and those of us too young to have seen the film in theaters.

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