Saturday, December 27, 2014


One of the great things about attending the 2014 October Monster Bash with Josh Kennedy was being able to discuss movies with him. I can talk about movies all day long with plenty of people on the internet, but it's much more enjoyable to have a real dialogue with a person face-to-face. Josh and I talked about all sorts of films, not just horror and science-fiction entries. During one of our conversations the title THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE came up. This movie has a particular resonance for Josh, because he goes to school at New York's Pace University and he rides the New York City subway system often. I told him I had never seen that film (which he found hard to believe). He then decided right then and there that he was going to get me a copy of it for Christmas. So this week I got a DVD of it in the mail, and I now have finally seen it.

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE was made in 1974, and it was directed by Joseph Sargent from a screenplay by Peter Stone, based on John Godey's novel. The story is about four mysterious men (Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Earl Hindman) who take over a New York subway commuter train. The men hold the passengers inside hostage, and demand that the city pay them a $1 million dollar ransom in an hour, or they will start killing off their captives one by one.

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is about as representative a film of the 1970s as you can get. There's a almost documentary-like aspect to the production, no doubt due to the extensive New York City location shooting. The New York portrayed in this film is not a 21st Century tourist trap New York--it is a real, working class New York, filled with ordinary men and women who do ordinary jobs. All the supporting & background characters look and sound like real people instead of Hollywood extras.

The New York Transit Authority Police Officer who winds up dealing with the criminals is one Lt. Garber, played by the inimitable Walter Matthau. Matthau became a big star in the 1970s, but he was always a character actor at heart. He had the rare ability to believably play men who were working-class without seeming contrived. As Lt. Garber, Matthau is really playing another typical "Walter Matthau" role, but you would still swear he had been working for the Transit Authority almost all his life. Matthau's humanity makes Lt. Garber more than just the regular movie cop.

The head of the criminal gang is played by Robert Shaw. Like Matthau, Shaw was another character actor who reached mainstream stardom in the 1970s due to his roles in films like THE STING and especially JAWS. As an actor Shaw always had a quality of danger and menace about him (apparently he wasn't all that easy to get along with in real life, either). Shaw is perfect for the taciturn gang leader (the gang refers to each other by aliases based on colors--"Mr. Green", "Mr. Gray", etc.) because the actor could be intimidating without even saying a word (just watch his performance in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE). Shaw is a man who means business, and the audience knows that he will do whatever is necessary to achieve his goal of getting the ransom money.

We learn nothing about the gang until almost the end of the film, and even then it is just the most basic information. We don't find out what makes them tick, we don't get any flashback scenes, or scenes that "explain" each of the criminals. Because we know basically nothing about any of these men, they wind up appearing more dangerous, since a viewer can never assume what any of these men will do in any particular situation. The mistake of most 21st Century films is that they give out too much information, telling so much about the characters that they wind up being lifeless and predictable.

The lack of information about the hostage takers also holds for the main story. Information about the situation is revealed to the audience the same time it is revealed to the characters on the screen, making viewers feel as if they are experiencing events on a real-time basis. THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE has no "fluff" scenes or padding; everything revolves around the hostage standoff.

The reaction of various characters to the train hijacking is rather different than most movies of this type. The first reaction to those attached to the N.Y. subway system is anger (not over the hijacking, but over the fact that dozens of trains are being backed up), then disbelief, then chaos and confusion. 1970s New York City is shown to be one huge bureaucracy, in which it seems amazing that anything gets done at all. It is this bureaucracy that the hijackers are really up against--a viewer worries that the hijackers will start killing people not because they won't get the money, but because the workings of the city will screw the whole thing up.

As for the hostages, we don't get any "special" scenes with them....we don't even learn any of their names. They look and act like a cross-section of people from a mid-1970s urban setting. The script does not let them distract from the main story (which does not mean they are expendable--we certainly do not want to see any of them killed).

One major highlight of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is the music score by David Shire. The score's tough, gritty, driving rhythm matches the film perfectly.

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is a well-made exciting thriller, and a movie I enjoyed very much. Movies like this just aren't made anymore. (Yes, I know that this one was remade, and no, I haven't seen the remake and I don't intend to.) If you haven't seen it, please do. I'm not going to give away the ending....but it is one of the best ways to end a movie that I've ever seen. And remember....don't step on the third rail.

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