Thursday, August 22, 2013

Walter Matthau Negotiates Over "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three"

It's a testament to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) that it has been remade twice in the last 29 years--as a made-for-TV movie and a big-budget action picture. However, the decision to produce those remakes remains questionable, because how do you improve on a practically perfect urban suspense film?

The premise is a simple one: Four men hijack a New York subway and hold the passengers for ransom, demanding that $1 million be delivered within an hour. One passenger will be executed for every minute that the money is late.

Garber (Matthau) stalls for time.
Of course, Pelham's success has nothing to do with its familiar "hostage situation" plot and everything to do with its cast, screenplay, and setting. At a time when movie audiences were used to young, intense cops like Al Pacino's Serpico, Walter Matthau's Pelham hero must have been quite a shock. As Lieutenant Garber of the New York Transit Authority Police, Matthau wears a light brown jacket to cover his red-yellow-green plaid shirt and yellow tie. He spends most of the film in the transit's office (I love the little touches like the Bayer aspirin on his desk). And no one would ever call Garber intense. In fact, his coolness and ability to make quick decisions is his greatest attribute.

Mr. Blue (Shaw) prepares to follow
through on his threats.
In contrast, Robert Shaw displays a muted, ruthless intensity as the leader of the hijackers. When he flatly states he will kill the passengers if required, his tone leaves no doubt. One of my favorite parts of the film is how it subtly compares Shaw's Mr. Blue with Lt. Garber. While Garber struggles to get decisions on his end, Mr. Blue has to cope with a gang of misfits, including the reluctant Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) and the psychotic Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo). Garber and Blue may have nothing in common--except they are the decision-makers trying control the situation, each from his own end.

Peter Stone earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, which was adapted from John Godey's 1973 novel. To offset the film's violence, Stone brilliantly incorporates humor, derived from the most unlikely sources (e.g., the city's indecisive mayor, a tour of the Transit Authority by Japanese businessmen). The mayor, played as a whiny politician by Lee Wallace, tries to use a case of flu as an excuse for not handling the situation. As the deputy mayor pressures the mayor to make any decision about the eighteen hostages, the mayor turns to his wife (nicely played by Doris Roberts) for advice:

Mayor's Wife: I know a million dollars sounds like a lot of money. But just think what you'll get in return.

Mayor: What?

Mayor's wife: Eighteen sure votes.

Still, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a suspense film and it certainly delivers in that department. Its most stunning sequences are a runaway subway and a race against time through the crowded streets of New York to deliver the ransom money. Director Joseph Sargent takes advantage of the on-location filming, which gives the film an appropriately gritty look. In 2005, National Public Radio's "resident film music buff" Andy Trudeau listed David Shire's pulsating, jazzy score as one of his all-time top ten.

And, as you might have suspected, writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In fact, he paid homage to it in Reservoir Dogs by having the gang members refers to themselves as colors--just as Shaw's gang does in Pelham.


  1. Totally agree with you on this one Rick. The film does an excellent job of setting things up with Matthau giving the tour and demonstrating why he's the perfect man to handle this: he's got the patience of a saint. The 1970s vibe certainly adds to the film's charm as well, and makes the movie an interesting glimpse into a far more unhinged era.

  2. Love this film - it totally had me on the edge of my seat with great sympathy for Matthau (and a secret, abiding crush on Shaw). Thanks for the memories!

  3. Rick, I totally enjoyed your review of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123; in fact, I've loved it since my family members all brought me to see it in its original theatrical run back when I was an 11-year-old in The Bronx with my movie-loving family!

    I just hope you don't mind that I've already committed myself to reviewing it for SUMMER UNDER THE STARS for Martin Balsom Day on August 27th -- but I'm confident each of our own unique views of this awesome thriller will be fun for both of us and all of our readers! :-) Excellent post, Rick, as always!

  4. Because I'm not a native New Yorker, I'm not sure of the dates involved.
    I only saw PELHAM for the first time on TV, some years after it came out.
    Am I the only one who noticed that actor Lee Wallace was a dead ringer for Ed Koch?
    And since this movie was made about a decade before Koch became Mayor of NYC -
    - does that make the producers prophets?
    (Or am I at a loss?) ;-)

    1. As a native New Yorker who has seen "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" dozens of times since it was first released in 1974, I noticed the uncanny resemblance between Lee Wallace and Ed Koch many years ago.

      That being said, I must point out an error in your assertion that "this movie was made about a decade before Koch became Mayor of NYC". "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" was filmed in New York in early 1974 and released on October 2, 1974. Ed Koch was elected Mayor of the City of New York on November 8, 1977 and was sworn into office on January 1, 1978. Therefore, the movie was filmed and released approximately three years before Koch was elected Mayor.

      While the movie was filming, Koch was a United States Congressman representing New York's 18th Congressional District. He was well known to New Yorkers when he was a Congressman, so the casting agents could have patterned the mayor in the movie after Koch, who was more colorful than the somber Abe Beame, who was the Mayor of NYC in 1974.

  5. It's a dandy. You reminded me that I have yet to make my daughter watch this one. Correction, I mean I have yet to share this excellent picture with her.

  6. "Pelham" reminds me just how excellent Walter Matthau can be. I especially like his little smile at the conclusion. Well done, Rick!

  7. Wow, this film sounds good. I've only heard of the title and never really looked into what the plot was about. Sounds too good to pass up!