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Of all the gritty '70 New York cop movies, none is more entertaining than Joseph Sargent and Peter Stone's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, an extortion thriller that has the best of everything when it comes to crime in the Big Apple. When an odd ensemble of killers and crooks hijacks a subway car, Manhattan erupts in a volcano of confusion, from the Mayor's mansion to several grimy little underground transit monitoring stations. Dogged Transit Cop Walter Matthau tries to solve the crime and save human lives as New York throws one obstacle after another into his path: bureaucratic red tape, traffic gridlock and Mayoral politics. What proves to be Matthau's greatest hurdle is the character of the New Yorkers themselves: almost to a man they're contentious, opinionated, hot-tempered. Men with machine guns aren't enough to keep irate subway riders or mad-as-hell schedulers from saying exactly what's on their minds. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three isn't as much about a crime as it is a portrait of a profane, beloved city.
Four heavily-armed men using the code names Blue, Green, Grey and Brown (Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo & Earl Hindman) seize a subway car loaded with cross-town passengers, uncouple it from the rest of the train and demand that the city fork over one million dollars in just one hour, or the leader Mr. Blue will start executing hostages. Mr. Grey, an ex-Mafia psychopath, blasts down a railroad employee (Tom Pedi) who insists on approaching the stolen train car. Mr. Green, a subway motorman fired for corruption, prepares the cab for a quick getaway. Up top, Transit Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) must keep a dialogue going with the hijackers and urge the Mayor (Lee Wallace) to expedite a cash ransom across town. Garber must also cope with visitors from the Japanese subway system and the stubborn interference of a colleague, subway routing master Correll (Dick O'Neill). As the deadline nears the NYPD races through traffic to deliver the payoff money, while Garber begs the hijackers for more time. Nobody has had much time to think about what should be a very obvious question: just how are the robbers going to escape with their loot?
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a winner from the first note of David Shire's jazzy theme music. Handed an unbreakable scenario by the book author John Godey, ace screenwriter Peter Stone is able to stress a broad selection of extreme reactions to the pressure of a terror extortion plot unwinding beneath the streets of the city. Until the emergency is established, Lt. Garber's own office mates are a band of wisecracking cynics unimpressed by anything, including their bosses. Down in the bowels of the switching stations, old New York is represented by the extreme "character" types Robert Weil and Tom Pedi, who conduct all business at the level of shouting. Weil played the mail room clerk in The Hudsucker Proxy, the one who keeps shouting at Tim Robbins that if he commits any infraction of company rules, "They'll dock you!" Tom Pedi goes back to the days of hardcore film noir, with strong parts in The Naked City and especially Criss Cross, where his reaction to good news was always a heavily-accented "That's the ticket! That's the ticket!"
Saddled with a case of the flu, the mayor is a whining, profane bundle of nerves, and must be goaded and insulted into doing his duty by his wife (Doris Roberts) and his assistant (Tony Roberts). The mayor doesn't want to appear in public to show concern for the seventeen hostages, for fear that people will boo him: "They always do!" The bitter chief dispatcher Correll works himself into a pissy mood that makes Archie Bunker look benign by comparison. Garber loses his patience when Correll's outbursts become an obstruction, and a full-scale fistfight almost breaks out.
Meanwhile, down in the subway the tension goes off the chart. The tunnels are lined with snipers waiting for a go-ahead signal; they're so keyed up they might accidentally shoot each other. The thief-in-command Mr. Blue has worries of his own. Mr. Grey is showing himself to be an itchy-fingered loose cannon, shooting first and grinning with pride afterwards. The nervous Mr. Green can't keep his mouth shut, and tells the captive conductor and motorman too much about the mission. And even with gun barrels pointed at their noses, the cross-section of hostages behave like genuine New Yorkers, talking back to their captors and flying into multi-lingual panic. Mr. Blue's secret escape plan involves sending them on a high-speed wild ride through the subway system that would scare the pants off anybody. Only one hostage has a good idea of how to absorb the tension -- she folds herself into a lotus position and meditates: "Ommmmm!"
And there's one more loose wrench in the machinery: Lt. Garber knows that one of the hostages on the hijacked subway car is really an undercover Transit Cop ... armed with only a small pistol, and waiting for an opportunity to act. It may even be a woman.
Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw are solid foes, while Martin Balsam is great as a sniveling thief and Hector Elizondo appropriately reptilian as the sneering. trigger-happy hood. This movie is a real valentine to the non-melting pot of Manhattan at a certain time in history, when the city's fortunes were at low ebb and the credo on the streets was Every New Yorker for Himself.
There's no downside to the original version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three; the picture is a delight on all levels, from Walter Matthau's gum-chewing attempt to keep a lid on his nerves to the wonderfully
Fox / MGM's Blu-ray of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three looks great, far better than original release prints. Cameraman Owen Roizman became a "New York look" specialist after The French Connection. Pelham was singled out in laboratory ads in American Cinematographer that claimed that pre-flashing film was now a safe way to get decent images in very dark filming situations (film stock in 1974 was nowhere near as sensitive as it is today). That yielded a low-contrast image with heavy granularity. Frankly, studios and labs took advantage of the fact that "gritty" crime movies around this time didn't have to look good -- most release prints on Pelham looked awful. This new Blu-ray retains its street cred yet offers better color and a much sharper image than I've ever seen. I played the old 1992 MGM laserdisc until it fell apart like an onion, and it was no beauty.
MGM/Fox's disc is one of those eternal players that will keep recycling until it's turned off. Nobody considered these cop shows to be Oscar material, even though The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is superior to most movies from 1974. I have a theory that the film's exploitative poster kept some viewers away -- the cartoonish mess of gun barrels and screaming victims would look better advertising a movie called The Manhattan Machine Gun Massacre: "We are going to kill one passenger a minute until New York City pays us 1 million dollars."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.