A clever and funny hostage picture with an offbeat setting and an even more offbeat protagonist, the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is vastly superior to the 2009 remake starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington. Whereas the latter picture is frenetic and slick, Joseph Sargent’s ’70s version mixes expertly orchestrated suspense with amusingly grumpy Noo Yawk character flourishes. In fact, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three achieves that most difficult of balancing acts by intermingling danger and humor so that scenes are often jittery and droll at the same time. The title relates to the hijacking of an NYC subway train by a group of middle-aged terrorists whom we get to know by code names: Ice-blooded mastermind “Mr. Blue” (Robert Shaw), trigger-happy gunman “Mr. Grey” (Hector Elizondo), avuncular driver “Mr. Green” (Martin Balsam), and accomplice “Mr. Brown” (Earl Hindman). These four take over a train and communicate their demand for $1 million via radio to the New York Transit Authority, threatening to kill hostages on a regular basis if the city fails to meet a ransom deadline. This puts the crooks at odds with Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), a sarcastic, seen-it-all cop with the Transit Authority’s police force.
Many of the beats in this story, which was adapted from a novel by John Godey, are standard stuff for hostage pictures: The political machinations of the mayor as he contemplates paying the ransom; the revelation that one of the hostages is an undercover cop; the tricky games Garber plays to buy time; and so on. It’s the execution, however, that makes all the difference. The great playwright/screenwriter Peter Stone delivers Godey’s pulpy narrative with what can only be described as effervescence. While Stone ensures that violent scenes have genuine tension, he threads the script with dry one-liners and pithy dialogue exchanges. In particular, Stone does wonders with the radio conversations between Garber and “Mr. Blue”—the adversaries pick at each other like bickering spouses, a vibe underlined by the contrast between Matthau’s put-upon petulance and Shaw’s tightly contained rage. (Another of the film’s many effective running jokes involves Garber giving a tour of the Transit Authority’s facilities to visiting Japanese dignitaries on the day the hijacking happens; wait for the terrific punchline after watching Garber make a series of offensive remarks to his seemingly oblivious guests.)
Sargent keeps his camerawork nimble, exploiting the atmosphere of gritty locations, and he benefits from the hard-edged imagery of master New York cinematographer Owen Roizman (The French Connection). Adding to the entertaining verisimilitude is a cavalcade of salty New York character actors: In addition to Balsam, Elizondo, and Matthau, the picture features Kenneth McMillan, Dick O’Neill, Doris Roberts, and Tony Roberts. Balsam and Elizondo are memorable as, respectively, a schmuck who gets involved in something he can’t handle and a psycho who gets off on carrying a gun. Best of all, of course, is the movie’s exciting final act, which features a series of unexpected climaxes stacked upon each other—the conclusion of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three manages to pay off every subplot meticulously and satisfyingly.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: GROOVY