Forgotten Gems: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (*****)

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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – 1974

Director Joseph Sargent
Screenplay Peter Stone based on the book by John Godey
Starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller, Earl Hindman, Dick O’Neill, James Broderick, Tony Roberts, Lee Wallace

The characters of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (P123) feel as authentically New York as anything in the second half of the 20th Century. That each of the actors feel familiar but not too familiar is representative of the fact that they all lived and worked around the city. There are quick wits, quicker tempers and people with better things to do than listen to your demands, thanks.

The story should be familiar for those who saw that Tony Scott / Denzel / Travolta film a few years back. Four assailants named Mr.’s Blue, Green, Grey and Brown (anyone who likes Tarantino should see the connecti0n) take control of one section of a subway train. The people on it become their hostages in a ransom demand for a million dollars. Mr. Blue is a former mercenary (was Shaw ever anything else). Mr. Green (Balsam) used to work for the transit system.

Their plan seems pretty foolish to Lt. Zachary Garber of the Transit Police. There does not seem to be a plausible way for the kidnappers to escape. Mr. Blue is not so worried about this, and we’ll see why.

P123 is a violent and unsympathetic film. The characters are almost all unlikable on their surface, even if they have more self awareness than would seem on the surface. Everyone lives in that place where cynicism meets realism and they are all quite comfortable there. It is a perfect environment for one such as Matthau’s Garber to exist. This film would have failed, however, if he had been the only one to have that sarcastic quality. The people around him are just as intelligent and belligerent. This is their language of affection and effectiveness.

There are several examples of this language that involve a nuance that plainly is too complicated for today. A lighter version of this involves O’Neill’s Correll getting in Matthau’s face while he is translating a message from hostage takers. He looks up for a second and quickly says “…Will ya?” Most, including Correll, know how to fill in the gaps. Most of the snowflake generation would be saying “Will I what…?”

Other more nuanced instances include his interaction with some Japanese visitors who are studying the subway system. There are names Garber uses to describe them that are on their face, offensive and quite simply, wouldn’t be used today. The reaction from his more polite and advanced Japanese counterparts that immediately show Garber who the real primate is, and he acknowledges this in a very effective, but wordless way. It’s one of the real transcendent moments that art can provide, but there is no way the moralists of today would “tolerate” this.

It is impressive how much time the camera is not focused on the names at the top of the credits. In this way, we get much more of a flow to the story and it makes things like the rush to meet demands (and Garber’s handling of the negotiations) incredibly tense. There are so many characters that have an actual stake in the proceedings, it feels like a community is affected, not just a few streets cordoned off to allow cameras to roll.

Sargent never really achieved this level of greatness through the rest of a solid career. He is in complete cohesion with the writer (Charade‘s Stone) and the music (Shire, who had another classic the same year with The Conversation). Shaw, Balsam and Elizondo are aces, and this is definitely Matthau at his best. It even allows one to remember how good a character actor Tony Roberts was. There are no letdowns in this movie.

If you like a B-Movie plot pushed up to A+ execution or if you just want to see one of the best endings in the 1970’s, take some time to seek out The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

(***** out of *****)

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