The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, the 1974 action suspense yarn based on the novel by John Godey (the pen name of author Morton Freedgood) about four men who hijack a subway train in New York City and demand a million dollars within an hour for the return of the train and the hostages or they’ll be executed one-by-one for every minute the money is late, celebrates its 45th anniversary this month.
The film, a nicely made cocktail of comedy, action, and thrills, peppered with some sharp and perceptive NYC cynical dialogue by Peter Stone and delivered in realistic performances led by the late, wonderfully craggy versatility of Walter Matthau, still holds up today and still holds its own. Directed by Joseph Sargent, who directed television before helming Pelham and did absolute dreck like the third Jaws sequel years after it, more than finds his footing here however, and is able to walk all those cliché tightropes of comedy and drama, by doing it every way but cliché.
Matthau plays Lt. Garber of the NYC Transit Police, and he does it in his inimitable kind of style that one instantly associates with the actor upon seeing him. His Garber is like most of the New York characters in the film, slightly groggy, direct, racist, moody, and most importantly, embodies the feel of an everyman New Yorker in a New York City circa the mid-70s, when the clamps of political correctness of today’s 21st century world weren’t even a fleeting thought in anyone’s mind.
Once Garber and the city realizes a hijacking has taken place underground and once he starts playing the cat and mouse games with the hijackers of the train and gets embroiled in becoming the middleman facilitator between them and the city and has to start making key crucial, life-threatening decisions on the fly via the radio transmissions he has with them, the film starts to kick into ultra high gear, and the superb triad punch of the script, performances, and direction, start to take command.
The head of the hijackers, Ryder, played by British actor and playwright Robert Shaw, is almost perfection to watch. Although our cinematic retinas have the image of Shaw as Quint in Jaws forever seared into our consciousness, to watch Shaw as Ryder in Pelham brings instantly a different kind of look at the man for most people, replete with his clipped British accent, cunning steely demeanor, and ultimate desperation.
Shaw brings almost a dare say class to Ryder, who we only know about vaguely, and even though he spends most of the film cloaked in a trench coat, mustache, and glasses (as the other three hijackers do), he still has an air of elegance about him that rises the character even over the “good guys” in the film, who are mainly transit cops and subway dispatchers who usually go toe-to-toe with each other by way of comic relief (the sequences when Matthau has arguments with the main dispatcher about his approach to how he’s handling the hostage situation and its eventual blow over, are highlights of the film).
The other hijackers, played by now legendary character actors as Héctor Elizondo and Oscar-winning actor Martin Balsam, have kind of either slovenly, or insurrectional and vulgar attitudes. All these aforementioned dynamics, are what makes the many scenes between Shaw and Matthau — albeit never together, as one is underground in the hijacked train and one is above ground at Transit Headquarters — stand out and essentially remain the benchmarks and “nerve center” of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, almost quite literally.
Throughout the film, there’s constant tension and then humor that relieves it, then tension which starts up again and is diffused by an unexpected joke. It’s a non-boring, nicely executed mode of repetition that chugs throughout the entire film’s tone and does so rather successfully from start to finish.
The film is also effectively aided by the music score, a powerful pulsing, rousing soundtrack composed by David Shire, who has also composed scores for other 1970s challenging films as The Conversation and Saturday Night Fever. Right from the opening notes as the film begins, the score grabs the viewer and gets them ready for the urgency and excitement of what they are about to see on screen. And although the music relies heavily in many ways and owes key nods to Don Ellis’ equally intense score for The French Connection, recorded three years prior to Pelham and also highly acclaimed, Shire’s score is instantly memorable in its intensity, presentment and most importantly, remembrance.
It all culminates in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 remaining a powerhouse, crackerjack-fun ride of a film, pun intended. And while both remakes of the film — one starring Edward James Olmos, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Donnie Wahlberg, and the other slickly directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta as the Matthau-Shaw retread (with both acclaimed actors falling way short of their respective predecessors’ marks) — are all but forgettable, the original Pelham 1 2 3 goes down the track in the opposite direction, like a barreling express train out of control, something that even actually happens in the film at one point.
Discover a lost gem after 45 years or revisit it again and again. Either way, “catch” The Taking of Pelham of 1 2 3 soon, don’t miss it.