DVD: Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The (1974)

February 27, 2011 | By

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Film: Excellent/ DVD Transfer: Very Good/ DVD Extras: n/a

Label: MGM/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: February 29, 2000

Genre: Suspense / Caper

Synopsis: A group of armed men hold subway passengers for hostage, while the city scrambles to meet the million dollar ransom payment in less than an hour..

Special Features: Theatrical Trailer

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Review:

The first film version of John Godey’s novel is a tight gem of action, suspense, and brutally cynical humour that unflatteringly personifies New Yorkers as an irritable populace perfectly comfortable telling anyone of middling irritation to fuck off.

Dry and wry transit cop Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) has to negotiate with the killers while fending off grumpy manager Correll (loud-mouthed Dick O’Neill) who wants to wrestle back control of his trains instead of a solution to the hostage siege; and an unpopular mayor must suppress a lousy flu in order to decide whether the crooks get their $1 million in cash, and hope the city won’t use the event to vote him out of office in the next election.

Racist quips percolate above the already snappy, cynical dialogue, and people make a few dumb decisions that put the passengers in danger as the city attempts to deliver the ransom within less than an hour.

The passengers held hostage by four killers are annoyed rather than afraid; the kidnappers are a familiar troupe of ill-paired villains wrangled by an icy cold leader; and whether it’s the local police, transit cops, or the mayor’s entourage, no one was having a good day when the Pelham train was snatched in the early afternoon.

That loud and verbally cacophonous background pretty much forms the template of the modern siege thriller, and it’s a radical contrast to classic fifties hostage films like Union Station (1950),where all levels of law and civil enforcement get along really swell. Maybe the setting of NYC pushed the filmmakers to creatively boost the level of aggression among the city as a whole, but the bickering and no-holds barred anger are elements that most screenwriters have interpolated into their own scripts about a civic realm in a state of turmoil, be it Volcano (1997r Daylight (1996).

There are several stages to Pelham that make it a classic of gripping suspense storytelling: the mysterious plan that’s already in play after the opening credits; a battle of wits between experienced cops and well-planned crooks; superb locations and some technical minutia pivotal to the resolution of the hostage crisis; team work among municipal law and technical geeks; and the classic challenge of a dogged cop who never buckles under pressure and solves the crooks’ escape plan, and outwitting their extremely arrogant leader.

Novel to the villains are the four being assigned names after colours, much in the way Quentin Tarantino adopted the formula in Reservoir Dogs (1992). Robert Shaw plays the leader, Mr. Blue, and his colleagues include a trigger-happy thug booted outside of their ranks (Hector Elizondo), and an ex-transit employee (Martin Balsam) whose grudge against his ex-employers is at the core of the hostage plan.

Garber is aided by a designated cop within the transit office (played by Jerry Stiller), and when meeting the city’s chief Inspector Daniels (Julius Harris) for the first time, Garber has to deal with his superior’s obvious blackness. Other small roles are similarly cast with able character actors, such Kenneth McMillan playing the Borough Commander, Doris Roberts as the mayor’s snappy and long-suffering wife, and Tony Roberts playing the mayor’s second-in-command who assures his boss’ Jewishness is more of an asset.

Whether the language and chilly, dry humour dates the film and affects Pelham’s otherwise serious subject matter is subjective; the political incorrectness of the insults democratically hits every race. One can see why Godey’s novel proved popular again, being remade in 1998 for TV, and theatrically in 2009, with the latter exploiting the inherent paranoia in a post-9/11 era.

Joseph Sargent probably never made a better film, and it marked the peak of a career that began in TV (spanning The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to The Invaders), and eventually led to the sci-fi classic Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and the southern drama White Lightning (1973). Sargent also directed the smart-ass, postwar buddy film The Hell with Heroes (1968), as well as the WWII drama MacArthur (1977) before disappearing into TV again, popping up once in a while to helm the odd feature (including the dreadful Jaws: The Revenge in 1987.

The use of montages and cross-cutting gives Pelham a raw docu-drama feel, and the location work in NYC (including the decommissioned IND Court St. station in Brooklyn) exposes plenty of grungy tunnels and maintenance passages. Equally vital to the film’s tone is David Shire’s jazz-funk score which is actually quite sparse in the film, but becomes magnetic when the city scrambles to deliver the ransom as the hostage train is on a dangerous collision path.

Money Train (1995) somewhat appropriated the tone of Godey’s characters, plus the runaway train finale, but that film’s script was written for a wholly different audience, wanting action and broad laughs in place of witty dialogue with barbed social commentary.

Pelham is an important seventies suspense thriller, but MGM has chosen to stick with this ancient 2000 transfer that contains a shrill soundtrack and no extras beyond a trailer. Reportedly less successful with audiences in the U.S. during its original release, the reissue of this bare bones DVD edition in 2009 to coincide with the latest remake was a colossal, missed opportunity. A director’s commentary, documentary, or appreciations by historians would’ve placed the film alongside All the Presidents Men (1976), Three Days of the Condor (1975), or the granddaddy of grungy NYC thrillers, The French Connection (1971), but it’s probably too late, as the remake will probably overshadow Sargent’s mini-masterpiece among general movie fans.

Other works by Godey that have been adapted into films include Never a Dull Moment (1968) and Walter Hill’s comic book action drama Johnny Handsome (1989). Screenwriter Peter Stone’s less rude but equally striking work include the classy Charade (1963), Mirage (1965), Arabesque (1966), and the dry 1971 racial comedy Skin Game (written under the pseudonym Pierre Marton).

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

DVD / Film:  Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, The (2009)

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD / Film:  Money Train (1995) —  Union Station (1950)

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External References:

IMDB Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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Buy from:

Amazon.com – The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Amazon.ca – Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Widescreen)

Amazon.co.uk – The Taking Of Pelham 123 [DVD] [1974]

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