Directed by Joseph Sargent in 1974 and based on the novel of the same name by author John Godey, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is one of those films that is almost brilliant in its simplicity. When the movie stars, four men wearing hats, glasses, long coats and moustaches, each carrying a package, board a New York City subway train. These four men - Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) - soon show their true colors when they wind up taking a subway car hostage after stopping it in the middle of a tunnel and separating it from the rest of the train. They use the radio to communicate with the Transit Police aboveground and make their demands clear - the city has exactly one hour to get them one million dollars in cash or they will start executing a hostage for every minute that the city goes past the hour.
Front and center in all of this is Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) who, with some help from Lieutenant Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller), handles the negotiations over the radio. When the highjackers shoot a transit supervisor who heads into the tunnel to talk to them, they quickly realize that these guys mean business and set the wheels in motion to get them their money on time. Of course, the press get wind of this, much to the dismay of the mayor (Lee Wallace), who heads to the scene at the insistence of the deputy mayor, if only to help improve his numbers in the polls. While the cops do what they can above ground, the passengers on the train start to become increasingly worried as the clock keeps on ticking and while Garber does everything he can to keep things moving on time, some of the guys below are starting to get anxious.
While by this point in the game the plot might seem a little predictable, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three holds up remarkably well thanks to two key factors, those being the performances and the character development. The script does such a great job of making us like Matthau's Garber that we are one hundred percent behind him during all of this. By portraying him as flawed and human and prone to errors in judgment like the rest of us (the perfect example being a scene in which he talks down to some visiting Japanese transit officials who he assumes, incorrectly, do not speak English) we're able to sympathize with him and feel for his position. Matthau infuses his character with a gruff New York charm, portraying him as tough but not without emotion or a sense of humor about himself, while at the same time treating the situation with the heaviness it calls for. His interaction with Jerry Stiller, here in a more serious dramatic role than most will be used to, is also both endearing and believable. Contrasting with their good nature are the four 'bad guys,' though they're not as stereotypically evil as most movie villains tend to be. While Shaw's quite ruthless as the leader, Balsam is quite a bit more sympathetic than you might expect him to be. All four actors who play the antagonists do a fine job here, and we have no problem buying them in their respective roles even if a bit more background information on them as to how they got to be where they are might have made things a little more interesting in that regard.
The performances and the characters drive the story but so too does the situation. The film does a great job of building tension and suspense and as we've invested enough into the movie to care about the ending, it makes the finale all the more intriguing. As such, it holds up well, taking a great concept and treating it right.
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three looks very nice in this AVC encoded 2.35.1 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer from MGM. Though there's a good bit of grain here and there it's never distracting or unnatural looking and as far as actual print damage is concerned, there's not much to complain about here, the picture is clean. This isn't the most colorful film ever made but skin tones look nice and natural and the earth tones used throughout the movie are replicated well. Black levels aren't quite reference quality but they're certainly very strong and shadow detail looks decent here too, even if they're understandably not as strong as what you might get out of a more modern film. There aren't any problems with any obvious edge enhancement nor are there any issues with any compression artifacts to note. All in all, fans of the film should be very pleased with the visual side of this release.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track, though optional subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish. The mix sounds fine given its age and while it might have been nice to have a surround sound option included here, the original track sounds good and does benefit from the increased clarity that the lossless audio provides. The score sounds nice, the dialogue is clean and clear and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. If some scenes sound just a little bit flat by modern standards so be it, but all in all the movie sounds just fine.
Extras are surprisingly skimpy for a film of this caliber, limited to only a pop-up menu which allows you to access chapter stops and audio settings, and the film's original theatrical trailer (presented in high definition).
MGM's presentation of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three looks great and sounds okay for its age but the lack of any substantial extras is bound to be a sore spot with the film's many fans. With that said, it's unlikely that this is going to get re-released on the format any time soon and the increase in detail and clarity that the high definition transfer offers makes this one that fans will want to own regardless. If you didn't already pick up the film when it was a Best Buy exclusive, this mass market release allows you to correct that mistake - consider this one highly recommended, in spite of the almost bare bones nature of the release, because the movie is just that good.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.