The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

A topical satire and a crackerjack suspense movie, this still stands up among the cream of 1970s crime movies, especially when compared with its two inferior remakes. The plot remains the same in all three versions: a New York subway train is hijacked and the passengers held to ransom. Part caper and part siege, the plot keeps you guessing as to whether the hostages will survive and how the villains think they can possible get away. The main difference is inflation: the original’s $1 million ransom became $5m for the 1998 TV-movie and reached $10m for the recent version starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington. But it’s the original starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw that remains the most successful.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“What do they expect for their lousy thirty-five cents? To live forever?”

The first thing you have to say about this thriller is that – like all three of the movies more or less with this title – it was adapted from the eponymous 1973 novel by John Godey. The second thing to say is that this original 1974 version, written by Peter Stone and directed by Joseph Sargent, is as much a comic spin on early 1970s America as it is a genre movie. Like Richard Lester’s Juggernaut from the same year (and to be reviewed here shortly), it takes  microcosm of society, has terrorists lock it off from the outside world, and then watches as things unravel, the clear implication being that this is representative of the malaise of the early 1970s, undermined by the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, the energy crisis and of course that comparatively new phenomenon – the hijack. Indeed, the one major thing this has in common with Juggernaut is the extent to which it masquerades as a disaster movie (they came out in the same year as The Towering Inferno, hot on the heels blockbusting success two years earlier of The Poseidon Adventure). They are however quite small and intimate by comparison, even though their satiric intent certainly brodens their appeal, especially nearly 40 years after the event.

Four men, all with glasses, moustaches and wearing hats, topcoat and carrying a cardboard box, board the southbound Lexington-Pelham subway. The four men all look-alike but can be distinguished by the different colours of their hats – and this is how they refer to themselves: in charge is the ultra precise Mr Blue (Robert Shaw), then there is the flu-ridden Mr Green (Martin Balsam), the stuttering Mr Brown (Earl Hindman, probably best known as Tim Allen’s unseen neighbour in Home Improvement) and the psychotic Mr Grey (Hector Elizondo in a horribly creepy performance a million miles away from his usual cuddly persona), a man so violent that even the mafia wouldn’t have him! If the colour coding seems familiar, that may be because that magpie talent Quentin Tarantino appropriated it for his own siege drama, Reservoir Dogs (1992). Like that film, though there is action and violence, it is also full of great characters and lots of quotable dialogue.

What’s really fascinating watching it again, is how compartmentalised it all is – in many ways it feels like three separate mini-movies glued together: the police investigation, the hostage drama, and the political backbiting over the decision, or not, by the mayor’s office on whether to pay – in many ways it shouldn’t work, and yet it does, and quite superbly too. It helps that, in its own low-key way, this a remarkably controlled film and is utterly convincing in its sense of location and detail, though in fact the control centre interiors were shot on soundstages while the train sequences were undertaken at Brooklyn’s Court Street Station, closed to the public since 1946. To help us understand the world we are in, Stone helpfully provides not one but two introductions to the two main centres of activity, opening with a new train conductor being given a quick exam on subway procedure and etiquette. This is handled with the garrulous and often profane humour that peppers the entire script, but which also leads to a nice irony when Mr Brown treats the conductor in the same way that his colleague did just a few minutes earlier, only now in completely different circumstances. When Mr Green uncouples the motor car from the rest and the train and then reverses, the conductor is simply amazed that the train can even go backwards!

“He’s got a heavy English accent, he could be a fruitcake.”

We then switch to the transit authority police offices, where Lieutenant Garber (Matthau) is giving the grand tour to the directors of the Tokyo subway, though he soon starts to make fun of them as they don’t seem to speak any English (this proves incorrect at the end of the scene, wryly dovetailing the moment when the realisation is just starting to sink in that something is really wrong with the train – which incidentally is named for its destination and departure time (1.23 in the afternoon).

Garber doesn’t come out of it all that well, but then this is a film populated by a pretty crusty bunch of characters, typical New Yorkers seemingly unphased by almost anything – which makes the sudden explosions of violence all the more shocking when Mr Gray guns down a rotund and voluble character we assumed was just there for comic relief.

“Pull your pants up Al, we’re going downtown.”

This is contrasted by the fairly hilarious scenes involving Al the Mayor (Lee Wallace, wonderful as the epitome of a self-serving and ineffectual bureaucrat), who like Mr Green is suffering from flu. He also isn’t doing very well in the polls (he’s trailing 22 points) but hassled by his deputy (Tony Roberts) he finally has to decide whether to pay the ransom – because Mr Blue has already drawn first blood and has given them only 1 hour to pay up. The decision is finally made by the mayor’s wife, played with her usual scene-stealing chutzpah by Doris Roberts, who is just as good here as she ever was in Remington Steele and as the mother-from-hell in Everybody Loves Raymond. But can the money be counted and delivered on time? This is where Garber proves his mettle, putting up with help and frustration from his colleagues (including a great if subdued performance from Jerry Stiller); and where Mr Blue shows himself to be as icy as his codename, refusing to budge from his timetable and executing a hostage as he warned he would.

“Gesundheit”

As the police mobilise above and below, the hijackers never seem to put a foot wrong and yet we know that there is much we do not know – how can they possibly make their getaway? We learn that the train cannot be moved without a driver actually physically present, which means the men are trapped underground with passengers. In the meantime the police are getting itchy trigger finger and cause at least one death through a gun firing accidentally. Plus there is apparently a plain-clothes and armed copy amongst the hostages, though we don’t know who this is amongst a motley crew including a prostitute, a mother of two boys who are much more excited than scared and a drunk who sleeps through the whole thing. Will they all make it? Will the robbers make an escape? Can Garber stop them and figure out their seemingly impossible escape route? This is all very nicely worked out and cleverly plotted, and ends on a classic dolly into Matthau’s most hangdog expression, paying off a gag right from t he beginning of the movie.

Artfully constructed, beautifully shot for that authentic 70s grunge, this is a movie that moves beautifully and never takes a false step despite several switches in tone from comedy to tragedy – a very hard thing to pull off. And then – and then there’s the cherry on top … And to top it all, along with its great cast, sensational dialogue and cleverly worked out story, there is another unforgettable part of the whole –  that funky musical score by David Shire, pounding and relentless (and subsequently much sampled), with that instantly recognisable horn riff that remarkably mixes big band jazz with the ultimate in 12-tone modern serial music for a truly unforgettable effect. Just listen to the extracts on the YouTube clip below:

DVD Availability: Having originally bought it first on VHS in the early 80s, I am now the proud owner of this film on Laser Disc (remember those?), DVD and the new Blu-ray – each has seen a leap in the image quality, from the horrible pan and scan of the tape and the rather faded colours of LD and DVDs (which just used the same video master and to boot also lacked anamorphic enhancement), the most recent being by far the most impressive with solid image reproduction, decent sharpness, no obvious digital jiggery-pokery and a phenomenally high bitrate (and average or 35 mbit/s for those who care about these things such as megabits). No extras from the trailer, but this is more than good enough for a budget release.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1973)
Director: Joseph Sargent
Producer: Gabriel Katzka
Screenplay: Peter Stone (from the novel by John Godey)
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Art Direction: Gene Rudolf
Music: David Shire
Cast: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman, Tony Roberts, Jerry Stiller, Lee Wallace, Doris Roberts, Julius Harris, Kenneth McMillan

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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37 Responses to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

  1. Haven’t seen the original – only the remake with Washington taking it far too seriously and Travolta treating it like he’s in a pantomime. It’s a nice idea, but wish I’d seen the original instead.

    • The remake is not necessarily a terrible film but the original is much, much better mate – it’s easy to get on DVD (and cheap too) but the Blu-ray is technically much more impressive (if you’re geared up for that).

  2. Jeff Flugel says:

    Great and detailed review of a terrific film, Sergio! That’s a very good observation, how it feels like three movies in one. Often that would be perceived as a flaw, but it works in this particular case. The script, direction and acting keep all three storylines compelling (usually I would find the procedural aspect more interesting than the time spent with the criminals, but they prove just as interesting here). And I love that great look Matthau gives Martin Balsam at the finale…priceless.

    I envy you the ability to make screen caps of Blu-Ray material. (I need a new computer, stat!) It looks like an excellent transfer.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words Jeff – however, I don’t have a Blu-ray drive on my computer (which is frankly steam-driven) so the image caps are from my old DVD, though I did try to spruce them up a bit. The Blu-ray, by comparison, looks about 10 times better! You can get the Blu-ray through Amazon in Japan (see here) but I don’t know if it’s a local version or an import.

  3. Colin says:

    Such a cool little movie Sergio. I like the way you draw parallels with the 70s disaster movies because there is a connection between them and movies like this – Two Minute Warning and Black Sunday also have ties. All these films take situations where groups of ordinary people are threatened by either people or events they have no control over and no real relation to.

    Great cast too. I could watch Matthau reading a cereal box and be entertained. It also highlights what a talent Robert Shaw was – his character is basically an enigma but you still believe he’s real, and kind of care about him.

    I just bought the Blu-ray myself – big, big improvement on the old DVD.

    • Cheers Colin. Two Minute Warning, which was a sort of spoiler for the much more expensive Black Sunday, is a really odd but interesting little film, with the sniper basically as a disruptive force that is ultimately never identified, explained and actually never seen. As a disaster movie it isn’t very good but looked at in context, as you say, a really intriguing little picture with (it has to be said) a great cast too. Shaw was having a real golden period wasn’t he, what with The Sting and Jaws bookending Pelham.

  4. Remember this one well. Been a long time since I saw it, maybe the original release. Had no idea it had been remade twice and see no reason for doing so. Same thing for all these other remakes of classic films/

    • Cheers Randy – I tend to have mixed feelings about remakes. The smart aleck in me points to the fact that the Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon was the third adaptation by Warners of Hammett’s book in 10 years – and I think the Clooney version of Ocean’s Eleven is much superior to the Sinatra original. And I like the Cronenberg version of The Fly, the Mel Gibson Ransom and the 90s version of The Thomas Crown Affair a lot more than the original productions. But on the other hand, most remakes definitely suck!

      • Agree on THE MALTESE FALCON. I’ve seen all three. Been so long since I saw Sinatra’s OCEAN.S ELEVEN I don’t remember much about it(though that may be telling now that I think of it) and I like Glenn Ford’s version of RANSOM better myself. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR: I’m a McQueen fan, but I did like the chemistry between Brosnan and Russo(though I’ve despised every Bond film Brosnan made; just to wimpy for my tastes).

        • The thing about the Ford Ransom to me is that it still feels like a TV play and i like the fact that they up the stakes for Gibson – but yes, it sound like I’m knocking the original and I don’t mean to at all. I just meant that it was a remake that managed to bring new and intelligent things with it. Russo has a much better role in the remake compared with Duanaway in the original it seems to me. I think you’re too harsh on Brosnan – I prefer his interpretation to the Roger Moore titles, especially Goldeneye and The World is Not Enough, which I thought worked extremely well with him in the role.

          • Todd Mason says:

            I’ll suggest that GOLDENEYE, as with ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, were better than the usual run in that Bond is given at least an inkling of humanity, as his adventures take their toll. Didn’t like the other Brosnan Bonds nearly as well. (Of course, Diana Rigg and Famke Janssen’s presence did nothing to deter my enjoyment.)

          • With the major exception, in my view, of Live and Let Die, it does always seem that the most interesting Bond films after Connery have, perhaps predictably, been those that served to introduce and establish a new actor in the role. It hasn’t aged brilliantly, but at the time I found Dalton’s first, The Living Daylights, to be a great leap forward compared with the Moore films.

  5. Skywatcher says:

    This was on TV a few years ago. I hadn’t intended to watch it, but found myself dragged more and more into the movie. It feels almost like a TV movie (not in a bad way), in that the focus is on the characters rather than the spectacle. It’s one of those films where you have to pay attention in order to get everything from it. I never thought about the link with JUGGERNAUT, but now that you mention it, there is a good deal in common; the complete lack of glamour, and the fact that even small characters feel like they have an existence outside of the story.

    Matthau and Shaw were wonderful actors. Though people tend to remember Matthau in things like THE ODD COUPLE, my favourite of his films tend to be stuff like this and the zany espionage tale HOPSCOTCH. Although he did play the good guy a number of times, I always found Shaw a very unnerving actor to watch. There was always a scary undercurrent of anger and violence in his personality, which meant that even in JAWS, where he is nominally one of the good guys, you can never really relax when he’s on screen. He’s the scariest of the Bond villains, in that you totally believe in his reality. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is a great movie, but after Bond finally defeats Shaw’s psychopathic hitman, the film never manages to regain the same amount of tension because you are genuinely relieved that 007 has managed to survive!

    PELHAM has one of my favourite last lines in the movies.

    • Thanks for the great feedback. I love Hopscotch and was thinking on doing a post on it sometime soon unless someone beats me to it … You are absolutely right, Shaw certainly projected an unsettling quality, never losing that roving eye even when playing conventionally heroic parts as he did towards the end of his career in Black Sunday and Force Ten from Navarone.

  6. TracyK says:

    You have featured another movie that I really want to see. Both this one and the most recent remake are on my Netflix queue, but this one first of course. Don’t remember if I ever saw it. Walter Matthau is usually wonderful. And I did not know that Peter Stone wrote the screenplay.

    Do you still have a laser disc player and do you use it anymore? We do, and it is still set up, but it has been a while since we pulled out a laser disc to watch.

    • Hi Tracy, well yes, I do still have my beloved LD player and many of the discs i used to play over and over again (including a Star Wars box set that I frankly have trouble lifting), but I haven’t used it in years – and yet I can’t part with it as many of the titles, or the extensive extras such as on some of my Criterion discs (which cost a small fortune to buy here in the UK as imports) have yet to come out on another format, which is maddening!

      I really hope you enjoy the original Pelham – its very rude and a bit violent but also very funny and beautifully put together.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    It is also among the least melodramatic of crime dramas on film, and one of the great improvements on film on its source novel. Even the too-easy jokes, such as Matthau assuming his Japanese charges can’t speak English and the identity of the undercover cop in a crucial scene, work in context.

    • Thanks for that Todd – actually, I’ve not read the book. In fact it doesn;t seem to be all that easy to come across and yet seems to have been fairly popular in its day … Which of course is usually the way of it.

  8. Todd Mason says:

    I’d suggest Shire was a student of my old faves such as George Russell and Lalo Schifrin…

    • I know what you mean, though Shire’s work during those years is very distictive and fairly sophisticated, especially The Conversation, All the President’s Men and my personal fave, the 1975 version of Farewell, My Lovely.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Well, distinctive and sophisticated doesn’t leave out being a student, particularly of Russell, who was a pioneer in chromatic scales composition in jazz…

        • Did you mean that literally? I had no idea Shire studied under Russell – I did have Jazz in the Space Age lying around somewhere, I’m sure of it …

          • Todd Mason says:

            Whether Shire studied formally with Russell (or anyone), I don’t know. Russell did do some formal instruction, but mostly with musicians in his working groups…Bill Evans, of course, took what he learned in terms of modal improvisation from the Russell band to the quintet with Miles Davis, et al., which then produced KIND OF BLUE. SPACE AGE is a fine record, though I think I like all his other records of that period as well or better.

          • When I wrote my Master’s thesis I pretty much just played my Kind of Blue CD for the whole period and nothing else (got a good grade too) …

  9. Yvette says:

    I”m always interested in the sorts of films that separate the guys from the gals. This seems a film that mostly men would enjoy and please don’t ask me to go into all the details of why I say that. I don’t want to take over your blog. :)

    Many gritty 70’s films reveled in the frustration and dirt of NYC. I lived in the city then and honestly, it wasn’t as bad as all that, though, of course, occasionally it could be – like during one of many garbage strikes.

    I did give up riding the subway in later years and haven’t ridden one since. But not because I saw this movie. It was more a common sense thing that if I didn’t HAVE to ride it, I wouldn’t . There was also a growing sense of general fastidiousness on my part. Those were the years when crime underground was not a rare occurrence and the heat and sweaty turmoil could become unbearable at times.

    At any rate, I’ve never seen this film (at least, I don’t think I have) and probably wouldn’t watch it now. Though if I did, I’d watch this version simply because you make it sound so intriguing. Plus I love Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau. (Speaking of HOPSCOTCH, I have it on my queue as well.
    But my favorite Walter Matthau film is first, last and always: A NEW LEAF with Elaine May.)

    Back to my original thought for a moment: Soon as my blogging apparatus is back to normal, I think I’ll do a post on the gender thing as it applies to the appeal of certain movies.

    How is it, Sergio, that you always manage to make even movies I know I’m not likely to see, sound enjoyable?? Make me feel as if I’m missing out by being stubborn. Stop that. :)

    • Yvette you’re such a charmer that I’ll proudly bare the male chauvenist medallion to all and sundry (when she gets back fromt doing the shopping that is …)! But seriously folks, thanks for all the great feedback. I have absolutely no clue on whether this is accurate or not though it seems to conform to the kind of attitudes that were rampant in movies about the Big Apple from those years – the cynical humour really helps in this regard and I have no idea if this would more obviously appeal to men than women. It’s not anything like as despairing as some of the Sidney Lumet movies from the period for instance.

      I certainly don’t feel myself having kinship with any of the characters – well, accept maybe Doris Roberts as the idiot mayor’s long-suffering wife! Really looking forward to your post on the gender enjoyment divide – Matthau is terrific in this and you should see it just for him (and Roberts and Shaw too).

      • Todd Mason says:

        I suspect this film would not further Yvette’s thesis much. Part of why it’s relatively unmelodramatic is that all the machismic impulses on the part of the characters are portrayed as pathetic, insane, or both.

        • I agree completely Todd – and it is a very astringent kind of movie that hardly deals in heroes in villains – instead it just shrugs its shoulders and keeps going. No matter how horrible things might be, you don’t imagine Matthau will ever wake up int he middle of night tortured by flashbacks!

  10. Yvette says:

    Oh, meant to add that I loved Robert Shaw as the dashing and dastardly (but in a heroic way) pirate in SWASHBUCKLER which has Peter Boyle as a repulsive villain and also has the distinction of the most amazing opening shot accompanied by wonderful music of a pirate galleon on the high seas. I would watch this movie again and again just for the incredible camera work/music combo of this opening sequence. Not a great movie by any means, but entertaining.

    • Funny you should mention that as I was just thinking that although Swashbuckler is really not a good movie at all – despite a fun cast and OK production values – as it just can’t get the right tone (and Shaw is about 20 years too old for it let’s face it) – the music by John Addison however is utterly sensational and I have always remembered it very fondly. There’s a even a good CD compilation of Addision scores recorded by the BBC that includes a very nice suite – here’s that lovely opening though:

      • Yvette says:

        Thanks for this Sergio. It was sweet of you to go to the trouble. :) Yeah, the movie really wasn’t very good I only discovered that when I re-watched it last year. Originally I’d only seen it the theater when if first came out. But I watched this opening online over and over simply because I liked it so much.

        Robert Shaw really was too old, though he looked good dressed in red from head to toe. But he could have played Genevieve Bujold’s father. Part of the problem was that no one in the cast was very likable.

        Speaking of the cast, I have a Geoffrey Holder story. Years ago when I lived in the city and often road the bus to work, I spotted Geoffrey Holder standing on a corner waiting for the lights to change. I was looking directly at him from my bus window and he saw me looking at him and he immediately realized I’d recognized him. He flashed me that famous grin. I wanted to yank open the bus doors (which had just closed) and run out to talk to him, but it would have caused scene. :)

        • You should have caused a scene Yvette – how wonderful is that!? My comparable experience is riding the bus in in downtown San Francisco and driving past Whoopi Goldberg in her habit as she was shooting Sister Act 2, which frankly is a lot less impressive as anecdotes go …

  11. Good choice, Sergio! I saw the Washington-Travolta version and didn’t like it very much. I find Travolta rather stone-faced in these roles though he does look the villain he plays. I thought he was more animated in BROKEN ARROW opposite Christian Slater, another train movie. Denzel Washington puts in a fine performance, his unusual appearance, I suspect, working in his favour. On the other hand, he plays it cool as the de facto engine driver in the runaway freight train heading for disaster in UNSTOPPABLE.

    This film completely slipped past me and I take pride in not missing Walter Matthau’s films, usually, so thanks very much for reviewing it. And a fine star cast too, with the likes of Robert Shaw, Doris Roberts (I have to get “Marie” out of my mind), Hector Elizondo, and Martin Balsam, whom I recently saw in a rerun of RAID ON ENTEBBE, one of the hits of the seventies that came out around the same time as some of the films you mentioned.

    Judging by the pictures on display, the original looks more convincing than the latter versions. I am going to find out for myself.

    • Thanks very much Prashant – hope you enjoy it. I think it is pretty easy to find (well, I hope so). I found the remake pretty overblown – I did quite enjoy it but in the end the original in this case is just so much better …

  12. Skywatcher says:

    Has anyone here ever seen THE BUCCANEERS? It was a 1950s British historical adventure show, rather like the Richard Greene ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. Robert Shaw played the hero, Captain Dan Tempest. I saw it when it was repeated on satellite in the early 90s. It was a fun show, and interesting to see Shaw trying to do a breezy, swashbuckling role. I never felt that he was quite relaxed enough to really convince in that sort of part, although he did his best, and it was fascinating to see him looking so young and clean cut.

    • I do have dim memories of that – it was one of the early Lew Grade series (just like the Richard Greene Robin Hood, which was in fact the showman’s first TV hit). I always assumed that the earlier show was why he made Swashbuckler – it’s all available on DVD now. Incidentally, the actor who played Beamish was Peter Hammond, who later went on to become one of UK television’s most visually distinctive directors, handling episodes of such shows as Inspector Morse and many of the later episodes of the Jeremy Brett version of Sherlock Homes.

  13. Pingback: Top 12 Mystery Movie Remakes | Tipping My Fedora

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