The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

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.

Serenity now

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.

Revisiting The Sting

I rented The Sting on VHS ages ago because family said they liked it, and other than Robert Shaw’s excellent performance, it didn’t really grab me. I remember finding the cons too well explained for the rubes. Oh, I was so superior. So when it appeared in HD on Cinemax, I decided to give it another go, because I’ve come to love ’70s period pieces like Paper Moon, and this is one of the big ones.
The script came to be when David S. Ward, then working on the forgotten oddball comedy Steelyard Blues, researching a pickpocketing scene. This led him to the bible of con games, David W. Maurer’s The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. It’s an intriguing but dry treatise on the big, or long con that takes part in the second and third acts of the film. A short con, we see in the film’s first scene- the parting of a fool and his money, by appealing to his greed. That’s the heart of all con games, and the heart of The Sting.

We like to think of con games as being a relic of the ’30s and ’40s with bunco squads hunting clever, dapper grifters; but it still goes on today, and it’s much more complex than Bernie Madoff’s rookie scheme. A good con ends with the mark not even knowing he’s been conned, or by the time he does the grifters have evaporated like mist off a lake on a spring morning. The story starts at a bookie joint running late on their money drop; they send a runner with an envelope of cash, who walks outside just as Robert Redford seems to be helping a mugged man get his wallet from a fleeing crook. The best cons make you think you’re the tricky one until you realize you’ve run off with a pig in a poke, and that’s what happens here.
But Luther, an older black man played by Robert Earl Jones, who appeared in Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter, and Redford playing Johnny Hooker- don’t realize they’ve just ripped off an important mobster. When they count the loot they say “we’re millionaires!” and Hooker is soon parted from his share of the take, gambling roulette after picking up his burlesque dancer moll. Luther is the mentor, and chides him for acting like a no class grifter, or a pimp; he’s retiring, but he won’t have a chance to. They robbed Doyle Lonnegan, a shrewd, ruthless mob kingpin played by Robert Shaw, who wants an example made of them. Hooker gets crooked cop Charles Durning, Lt. Snyder, on his back as well. When he goes to warn Luther, it’s too late, but his mentor manages to tell him to find grifter Henry Gondorff before he goes to the big con in the sky.
And that’s just the first 24 minutes. The movie uses title cards and musical interludes for the parts of the big con- the Set-Up, the Hook, the Tale, the Wire, the Shut-out and the Sting. This, along with the fine mix of backlot sets and Chicago locations, saucy burlesque and salty dialogue, gives us both a period feel but reminds us that it’s a pastiche. For the Set-Up, we meet Henry Gondorff– Paul Newman’s character, named after a real con man who invented the “big store” con used in this film- who also has a grudge against Lonnegan. He’s washed up, working the carousel at a carnival. When we meet him, he’s hung over and Hooker throws him into a cold shower. He wants to be taught the long con, because he “don’t know enough about killin‘ to kill him.”

Newman is cool, with his famous knowing grin; Redford plays the young hothead, which I will begrudgingly say he does to perfection. He’s not my favorite of actors, but with his big smile he’s perfect for this role. Newman is frazzled and gray, 10 years after Hud, 7 since Cool Hand Luke, and eases into the older man’s shoes comfortably. They’d played together in another period piece, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and are comfortable together. Newman’s ice blue eyes compliment Redford’s set of sapphires. They put together a huge team of con men to figure an angle on Doyle Lonnegan, an Irishman who doesn’t drink, smoke or chase dames. They settle on an out of date con called “the wire.” It’s still in use today, and was also featured in The Grifters (full review); the trick is that “we” will know the race results, or the stock market prices, a little bit before “everyone else,” and can profit off of it. A sure thing.
But there are no sure things. They find out Lonnegan likes to cheat at poker and plays a big stakes game on a train; time to set the hook, with the whole gang involved. They’ve got Kid Twist, played by the dapper character actor Henry Gould; Ray Walston in the wise but still sly old man role, and Eileen Brennan of Clue and Private Benjamin as Billie, pickpocket supreme. And they hire dozens more. They’ll need them; Shaw plays Lonnegan with shark’s eyes, “like a doll’s eyes,” as he’d famously say a few years later. He’s as cold and merciless as they come, oozing masculine power that would make Tony Soprano piss his boxers. When he means something, he makes sure you understand, ending with “ya follow?”
The script makes him especially brutal just by adding little details to his speech. He made his way up the ladder when his boss was found with “an icepick in his eye.” And when someone gets his ire, he tells his thug Floyd “to take him out back and put one in his ear.” See, that makes it personal. We like our eyes and ears the way they are. His foil is his bodyguard Floyd, the hammer-nosed character actor Charles Dierkop, probably best known as killer Santa from Silent Night, Deadly Night but who’s always been in minor roles in the best gambling films like The Hustler and even Maverick. He’s the cool one who keeps Lonnegan’s temper from exploding, and he brings a naturalism to the role.

I won’t explain the machinations of the many layers of the con they play, it’s too entertaining to watch it unfold, and too boring to explain. But needless to say, at one hour in we’re still riveted, and the game has only just begun. Directed by George Roy Hill, famous for collaborating with Redford and Newman previously as Butch & Sundance, he brings life to the picture with short static shots, jump cuts in the action sequences, and silent montages set to music. For example, we see Hooker flinch from a manicure when he’s being preened to play his role; he’s never gotten one before, he’s small time. And the great chase under and over the Chicago El, and through a Hooverville of shanties. Both are set to Marvin Hamlisch’s unforgettable performance of Scott Joplin ragtime tunes, that oddly enough, would have been about 15 years out of style for the time; Hamlisch composed two Jazz age pieces that fit the period, but it was Joplin’s “The Entertainer” that became a hit we still hear today. My mother had the soundtrack LP, and we loved how it built up in in energy from that playful clarinet to a rollicking piano tune.
The plot gets more complicated and the film plays its own grifts on us, befitting the theme. The FBI comes in, represented by Dana Elcar (the boss in “MacGuyver“) as Agent Polk. Hooker’s loyalty to his dead mentor gets tested against his new bond with Gondorff; he romances a lunch counter girl named Loretta, while dodging a hit man named Salino, still following orders from Lonnegan to wipe out the con man who stole from the runner in the first scene! The colors are bright but not garish; the old times look fresh and new. Bright greenbacks, flashy suits, grungy greasy spoons with blue plate specials. The specter of the Depression haunts the background, as we move from the garish world of top class mobsters to the boarding room flops of the grifters gunning for that big score.
The Sting would go on to win 7 of the 10 Oscars it was nominated for, including Costume Design, Art Direction, Original Score, Film Editing, Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director for Hill. Producer Julia Philips would be the first female producer to win a shared Best Picture, and would note in her biography You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again that she felt Robert Shaw saved the picture by accepting the part when Paul Newman flew to London to hand him the script; no one else offered would take the part under Redford and Newman. However, he fought for third billing and a high paycheck, which may have led the producers not to campaign hard enough for him to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Shaw is best remembered for this and Quint the grizzled seaman in Jaws, but he never won an Oscar and was only nominated for A Man for All Seasons as hot-tempered King Henry VIII. And his limp was real; he’d injured his knee playing handball and wore a brace throughout filming.

George Roy Hill is best remembered for his work in the ’60s and ’70s, like the sentimental and cute The World of Henry Orient, where two young girls get a crush on Peter Sellers; the brave failure Slaughterhouse-Five, adapted from Vonnegut’s novel; an epic adaptation of Michener’s Hawaii. Later, he’d direct Slap Shot (full review), one of Newman’s better middle-age period films, and he manages great masses of characters well. The smart casting of grotesques to counteract the pretty faces of Paul and Robert brings a much-needed taste of reality. He’d go on to adapt John Irving’s The World According to Garp that would finally free Robin Williams from “Mork & Mindy,” and finish with the underrated Chevy Chase dark comedy Funny Farm. Not too shabby a run, George.
On second viewing, The Sting‘s greatness is much more evident to me. The film hasn’t changed, but I have. I’m glad to read that David Maurer sued for $10 million, alleging that his meticulously researched book on confidence games, The Big Con, was the basis of the screenplay. He settled out of court. I feel that despite it’s upbeat ending and glamorization of Hooker, Gondorff and their con man kind, it is definitely the equal if not the better of Stephen Frears‘ gritty neonoir The Grifters, based on Jim Thompson’s brutal novel. A prequel was planned, but never came about; The Sting II came out in 1983 with a completely different cast but the same screenwriter, and is best forgotten. But the original is deserving of its classic status, and if you haven’t seen it, you ought to. Its setting makes it timeless and the beautiful Technicolor prints make it look better than a new film. No excuses. In your queue, right now.