I often wonder why a movie gets remade. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was based on a novel by and starred Walter Matthau as a Transit Police Lieutenant, and Robert Shaw as a mercenary leading a group of hijackers who do the impossible or idiotic; they take a New York City subway train hostage and hold it for ransom. It’s a perfectly enjoyable thriller, but watching it again, it seems like it lacks something. Let me see if I can pinpoint what that is.
The movie casts a long shadow- the hijackers’ use of color code names like Mr. Blue (Shaw) and Mr. Gray was aped in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and the ineffectual mayor, a dig at Mayor John Lindsay, cemented the useless governmental leader character used in such movies ever since. The movie’s real strength is how it depicts ’70s New York City cynicism and dread; the malaise under Mayor Lindsay was palpable, and even today people remember the murder rate that was 10x what it is today, how the D train was called the “Death Train,” and how we all laughed when Disney was going to Times Square- which was a haven for peep shows, streetwalkers, and hustlers! Its fantastic score by David Shire, and the strong performances by leads Matthau and Shaw solidify its presence. Surprisingly for a movie of this kind, it is a mood picture more than a story picture, and maybe that’s why something seems like it is missing. Perhaps I’m missing the forest for the trees.
At first, the MTA workers- played brilliantly by Jerry Stiller and Tom Pedi, that gravelly voiced fireplug from The Naked City)- think it will be a normal day. The control room set is a sound stage but you wouldn’t know it, from how well constructed it is. At first the production didn’t have the blessing of the Transit Authority, who were concerned about copycat crimes- but after paying $275,000 for the use of the closed Court Street station in Brooklyn and $75,000 in “hijack insurance,” they were allowed to use NYC Subway cars. Nothing else would do.
Part of the film’s lasting appeal was the authenticity. The hijack was on the 1:23pm #6 train, and while it was filmed on abandoned track, nothing looks like a grimy old New York subway car. Models of this vintage are still in use today, so the film barely feels dated except for ’70s clothes and cars; the train is populated with a diverse group of unnamed stereotypes that manage to not be annoying or offensive. The Hooker, the Old Man, the Doctor, the Lady Who No Speak English. Amusing that the Doctor is on the train; the ’70s was when the subway was no longer the great democratic equalizer in town, when suits and the upper crust gave it up for cabs. Of course, nowadays billionaire Mayor Bloomberg rides the subway to work every day as a symbolic gesture, a good one I might add. It would have been something, if the recent remake had his car get hijacked…
But back to the original. Robert Shaw is no-nonsense, coldly calculating and ruthless. He demands from the authorities one million dollars, or he will kill a hostage. Matthau gets the wheels turning with the mayor, the money-counting machines clickety clack to Shire’s rousing score, and a cop car races through mid-day traffic to deliver the ransom. There’s tension between Shaw and one of his men, an ex-mob hitter with an itchy trigger finger; a disgruntled motorman who came up with the plan is along for the ride, but we lack any background for them and it’s very difficult to care. Shaw sure tries hard, building a character out of thin air, whose finale is one of the most memorable in ’70s film. Matthau is about as cool as can be, dismissing his usual humor and going for a more authoritative demeanor.
Where the film stumbles is how everyone is so shocked that a subway was hijacked; someone jokes that they’re gonna escape with it to Cuba. They try to generate suspense by musing about how the gunmen will escape, but the result isn’t all that surprising or ingenious; they foil the train’s dead man switch as a diversion, and escape from one of a thousand subway exists in the underground labyrinth beneath the city. From there, things fall apart very quickly and the pacing gets too compressed, like the end of a Shakespeare play where he kills everyone off to tie loose ends. The best is of course Shaw, when faced with life in prison, makes his own electric chair out of the third rail. Damn, that’s hardcore; but I wanted a prequel, we didn’t get to know him long enough or see him do enough larger-than-life stunts for him to disappear so quickly.
The film’s well-known ending is a bit of a cop-out, as Stiller and Matthau track down the disgruntled motorman as a suspect, since they determine it was an inside job. It just feels too easy, and I’m not sure “he has a cold” would be enough circumstantial evidence to hold up in court. Of course, this is a guy dumb enough to roll around in bed with his share of the ransom, so he probably has his memoirs, “How I Planned the Taking of Pelham 123” written in a drawer somewhere. Like I said, the plot isn’t what you’ll remember here. Seeing Matthau and Shaw at the top of their game, and Jerry Stiller show surprisingly good character actor chops is well worth the running time. No offense, Denzel and Travolta were perfectly horrible choices to match them. Maybe Liam Neeson and Don Cheadle could have hacked it.
According to Wikipedia, the film did great in cities that had subways, but flopped everywhere else. I think part of its lasting influence is the railfan vote, and just how well it captures the ’70s cynicism, paranoia and lack of faith in government. The little guy verses the dummies up top; probably best executed since in Die Hard, where even the twinkie-eating flatfoot jokes about the FBI doing everything by the playbook. This minor ’70s thriller classic is worth seeing again, if only to see Shaw and Matthau at the top of their game.