The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

A trend in movies that seems to be taking root lately is remaking movies that don't need to be remade. Classic movies that resonate with audiences and are still remembered fondly must be ripe for the picking. Studios figure audiences liked it then....well, they'll like it now. That was the case with 2009's The Taking of Pelham 123 (read my review HERE). It was a good enough movie, but it didn't need to be made. The original, 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a classic in its own right and hard to improve upon.

It's a typical day in New York City when four men suddenly hijack a subway train, Pelham 1-2-3. They call in to the Transit Authority, talking to Transit cop, Lt. Zach Garber (Walter Matthau). The four men, led by Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), have uncoupled one train with 18 passengers and have some demands. The city of NY has exactly one hour to produce $1 million dollars and put it right in their hands. If they don't? Blue and his cohorts will start executing one hostage per minute. Garber passes the news along, and the city comes to life, police, SWAT, everyone getting involved. Garber starts to wonder though, what are the hijackers up to? They're underground in a tunnel with nowhere to go and surrounded on all sides. How can they possibly hope to escape?

If an example of a 1970s crime drama/thriller was ever needed, 'Pelham' is a perfect example. It belongs up there with The French Connection, Death Wish and Marathon Man as some of the best crime genre movies to come out of the otherwise pretty stylish 1970s (in films at least). Director Joseph Sargent has made a gritty, realistic gem here, one uninterested in a stylish, flashy story. There isn't a wasted moment in its 104-minute run-time. Watching it feels like a pseudo-documentary with a camera placed in front of the real-life performers, not actors. It isn't interested in being flashy. It only wants to ratchet up the tension to the point where it's unbearable. Blue's hour-long countdown keeps ticking away, and NYC doesn't seem any closer to giving him his money. A police car with the money racing through the streets is one thrill after another, time running out and the executions drawing ever closer.

This would be a fitting time capsule for New York City in the 1970s. Almost the entire film was shot on location in NYC, even using an abandoned stretch of subway for the underground shots. But more than just the visual, 'Pelham' paints a picture of 1970s NYC. The Mayor (Lee Wallace) is sick when the hijack takes place, but with free-falling numbers in popularity polls drags himself out of bed. His wife (Doris Roberts) claims he just earned "18 sure votes." From the police commanders handling the situation to the beat cops delivering the money to the hostages wondering what's happening to Garber and his crew at Transit Authority, there's a cynicism, a dark humor hanging over the situation. David Shire's score isn't used much, but it's jazzy, quirky aggressive sound is perfect. This is NYC. A hostage situation? Eh, just one more problem to deal with.

Thanks to the talents of Matthau and Shaw, a hostage situation handled entirely by radio conversations is surprisingly exciting to watch. They communicate via radio, Shaw's Mr. Blue calmly delivering his demands to a world-weary but shocked Garber sitting in the Transit Authority office. There is an ease to these scenes, a flowing rhythm between these two actors that drives the action. Who better to play a cynical New Yorker than Walter Matthau? I can't think of a single person. And playing Mr. Blue, a hardcore mercenary looking for cash? Robert Shaw is ideal. His Blue even does a crossword while sitting in the train waiting for news. The rest of Blue's crew include a scene-stealing part for Martin Balsam as Mr. Green, a former motorman fired from his duties, Hector Elizondo as Mr. Grey, and Earl Hindman (Yes, Wilson from Home Improvement wants to kill you) as Mr. Brown. Also look for Dick O'Neill as Corelli, a supervisor in Transit Authority worried about the train schedule backing up, and Jerry Stiller as Rico, a police officer working with Matthau's Garber.

As the hostage situation develops, the story's momentum picks up. What exactly do these nuts intend to do? They're trapped, cornered, no way out. How could they possibly manage an escape? The final 20 minutes provide some good twists (including a secret about one of the hostages) and a couple surprising revelations about how things are wrapped up. The best though is the last scene, a final shot so perfect that only Walter Matthau could pull it off.

It's easy now to see how this 1974 crime thriller has influenced countless movies of its ilk since. The most obvious of course is Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, naming his heist crew by colors and not their real names. But that's only the start. 'Pelham' gets right to the point and isn't worried about any side stories or truly developing the characters. Here's the situation, they're doing it, sit back and enjoy. Anything else would be needlessly extra. You can watch it HERE at Youtube (Part 1 of 11), but it isn't the greatest quality.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three <---trailer (1974): *** 1/2 /****

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