Written by John Godey, “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” was a massive best selling novel in 1973. In 1974, United Artists released a thrilling movie with a screenplay by Peter Stone, directed by Joseph Sargent and starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam.
On what seems a typical day in New York City, the Lexington Avenue line is making its way toward downtown Manhattan when three men board the subway train at different stations. At the 28th street station, a fourth man approaches the motorman, points a gun through the window ordering him to unlock the door to his cab and let the man standing outside his door enter. Meanwhile, one of the other men is now pointing a gun at the conductor ordering him to hold the doors open until the man talking to the motorman gets on board. One all are aboard, they allow the motorman to move the train out of the station stopping it between stations. Meanwhile, Lt. Zack Garber of the New York Transit Authority police is doing a tour of the command center, showing four executives from the Japanese Transit Authority the massive layout of the subway system. His day will soon go from mundane to way out of the ordinary.
The Pelham One Two Three is being hijacked and the four hijackers are demanding one million dollars in cash. Sounds crazy! How do you hijack a subway train? The plan is meticulous and almost works until it all starts to unravel with the help of a smart transit cop.
This is one of the most economical action oriented films ever made. No time is wasted on introducing the characters. Right from the very opening, we are integrated into the heist. The characters develop as the story progresses. There are no sub-stories or romantic interludes. There are no unnecessary explosions or violent close-ups’ of people being shot and they do not resort to special effects as so many films do today. Director Sargent leans on story, acting and simply, good solid filmmaking, he shoots the story straight.
“This is one of the great New York films. It captures the feel, the grime, the dress, the speech, the attitude of 1970’s New York. The Mayor, portrayed by Lee Wallace is an ineffective cowardly politician who comes across as a combination of former Mayors Abe Beam and John Lindsay though author Godey never stated whom the character was based on. In 1974, the city was in bad shape and John Lindsay who was in the final months of his administration when the film was made insisted that the filmmakers use graffiti free train cars so the image of New York would not look as bad as it really was.
The film is rich in excellent cast members from Walter Matthau whose droll sense of humor is perfect for the role of Zack Garber. The film was the third in a series of action films Matthau made during this period. Both “Charley Varrick” and “The Laughing Policeman” came out the pervious year. Robert Shaw is Mr. Blue a former British mercenary, and the cold unemotional leader of the hijackers. Shaw had just appeared in the Academy Award winning film “The Sting”, and in 1975 would soon appear in “Jaws.” Mr. Blue’s fellow hijackers include Martin Balsam as Mr. Green, a former disgruntled subway employee, and crucial member with the inside knowledge to operate the train. Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) is the trigger-happy gunman who “can’t wait to get on the scoreboard.” and Earl Hindman as Mr. Brown. In addition to the hijackers, Matthau’s transit cop has to deal with a hot headed dispatcher (Dick O’Neill) whose priority is to keep the rest of the subway system moving and be damned if anyone gets killed. The cast also includes Jerry Stiller, James Broderick, Tony Roberts and Doris Roberts as the Mayor’s wife.
Walter Matthau had read the script, liked it and told United Artists he wanted to do it. The role of Lt. Garber was originally written with a thirty-two year old African-American in mind. However, after Matthau was brought in, the script was changed to accommodate the star.
The cinematography of Owen Roizman captures the gritty look of the subway system, station after station in brilliant detail, as does Jerry Greenberg’s sharp editing which keeps the pace of the film moving at a quick speed. Greenberg’s other works include, “The French Connection”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Dressed to Kill” and “Scarface.” Finally and not least is David Shire’s exciting 12 tone funk/jazz style score which jump kicks the film right from the beginning. Shire was on a roll at this period producing some of his best work in films like “Farewell, My Lovely”, “The Conversation” and “All the President’s Men.”
The 2009 remake with Denzel Washington (restoring the role of Lt. Garber to an African-American) and John Travolta as the lead hijacker has a lot to live up to. What gives me hope is that the ’09 screenplay is by Brian Hegeland whose previous work includes “Mystic River” and “LA Confidential.” What worries me is that Tony Scott whose overall work has been slick and uneven directs the film.
And of course, I would be remiss it I did not mention how Quentin Tarantino was “inspired” by this film paying “tribute” in his use of naming his criminal characters, in “Reservoir Dogs”, after colors. Before watching the new version, check out the original. You will not be sorry.
Sources: Matthau: A Life – Rob Edelman