“What the hell do they expect for their lousy 35 cents – to live forever?”
Directed by: Joseph Sargent
Starring: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo
In a Nutshell:
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three often gets a little lost in the conversation about 70s American cinema, largely thanks to the sheer volume of awesome movies coming out of the States at that time. This taut, no-bullshit hijack thriller set in gritty New York was still influential in its own right, inspiring the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed the colour-coded nicknames for Reservoir Dogs. Forget the lame 2009 remake by Tony Scott.
Four men armed with machine guns and wearing similar disguises board a New York subway train and force the driver to stop in a tunnel between stations. Holding the passengers hostage, the ringleader Mr Blue (Shaw) contacts the command centre and demands $1 million ransom within one hour. One passenger will be shot for every minute it is late.
Lieutenant Zach Garber (Matthau) of the Transit Police takes charge of the situation, communicating with Blue on the radio while the city officials scramble to gather the ransom money. As the clock ticks down he desperately tries to buy the passengers more time…
The main strength of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the relationship between Walter Matthau as Garber and Robert Shaw as Mr Blue. The two actors have such a compelling contrast in styles – Matthau’s wry delivery and hangdog looks vs Shaw’s typically steely, tight-lipped menace. There’s real chemistry between them as they play cat-and-mouse on the radio, similar to the dynamic between John McClane and Hans Gruber – Pelham is sometimes referred to as “the original Die Hard“.
It’s a wonderful part for Matthau, perhaps best known for his comedic roles, who had a string of terrific hard-boiled roles in the 70s – Pelham, Charley Varrick and The Laughing Policeman.
Beyond Matthau and Shaw, the film is bursting with great character actors. Martin Balsam plays the crotchety Mr Green, a former subway motorman whose knowledge of the trains is crucial to the hijackers’ plan. He’s also suffering from a nasty cold…
Hector Elizondo is the loose cannon Mr Grey, a guy so crazy that he was kicked out of the mafia for being too violent. Seems there’s a loose cannon in every crew – you’d think criminal masterminds would stop hiring this type of help. Grey enjoys terrorizing the passengers a little too much, causing escalating tension between him and the boss…
All the smaller roles – from the passengers to the command centre staff to the cops above ground trying to figure out the situation – are all populated with memorable faces creating distinctive characters. A lot of humour in the film is derived from these tough New Yorkers treating the hijacking like an extra layer of bullshit to deal with during their already hectic day.
David Shire’s crunchy, propulsive, jazz-infused score is one of the great 70s movie soundtracks. From the moment those horns kick in over the credits you know you’re in for a great ride, and the music perfectly captures the film’s hard-nosed attitude.
Tough, funny, and gripping, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a cracking crime yarn that still puts most modern thrillers to shame. Watch it back-to-back with The Warriors for a double helping of glorious, gritty 70s New York…
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