Saturday, August 25, 2012

Overlooked Gems #39: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Grade: 94 (A)

The 1970s wasn’t just a great time for movie, but a great time for New York movies. Martin Scorsese put out a handful of the best movies of the era (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver). Woody Allen released two of the greatest love stories of all time (Annie Hall, Manhattan), one of them a great love letter to the city. The late, great Sidney Lumet made, among other movies, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, two great, socially conscious films about New York in the 70s. But with all of these films, other great ones are bound to be forgotten. The original 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was well-regarded in its own time, but it’s been overshadowed by films by more prominent directors and, more recently, a poor 2009 remake. Time to shine some light.

The New York subway train Pelham 123 has been hijacked by a group of identically dressed men who only go by code names: Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), a disgruntled former transit worker; Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman), a man with a bad stutter; Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), a former mob enforcer and a loose cannon; and leader Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), a former mercenary. The group kidnaps a number of hostages and instructs transit policeman Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) to radio the mayor and get the men $1 million dollars within the hour. Otherwise, he will kill one passenger per minute.

The key strength to the film is that there are no star turns- it’s essentially an ensemble piece featuring a number of talented character actors (Balsam, Jerry Stiller, Tony Roberts) and a fierce battle of wills between two determined men. Matthau is the perfect Matthau character- schlubby, irritated, acerbic (“The guy who’s talking has a heavy English accent…he could be a fruitcake”), sometimes rather foul, and yet likably so. He’s just a guy trying to do his job on a day where doing your job is particularly difficult. Even better is Shaw, one of the scariest character actors who ever lived (see also: Jaws, From Russia with Love, The Sting). The key to this character’s success is that Shaw isn’t a talkative person- he only speaks when giving an instruction, often followed by the reminder that he’ll kill someone if it isn’t followed. He’s a quietly fascinating and scary villain whose reticence makes him more terrifying.

Pelham One Two Three was directed by Joseph Sargent, whose track record after its release is more than a little shaky (he directed Jaws: The Revenge, one of the worst movies ever made). Sargent is in top form here, however, showing New York as a bustling, busy town full of irritated people just trying to get through the day. Sargent is helped by a razor-sharp script by Peter Stone that crafts both a tightly-wound heist movie and a funny portrait of a living, breathing city too busy to shut down for a disaster. This isn’t the biggest thing that’s ever happened, but rather more of a big irritation that keeps them from doing what they’re normally doing (I love the transit officer who keeps complaining that the trains aren’t running). It’s a feeling perhaps best typified by a character who learns she’s being taken hostage: “Ah, shit”.

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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