Great Films Of The 1970s: The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974)

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by Paul Batters

“Gesundheit” – Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau)

The heist film is always one that draws in an audience at a number of levels. Like a number of other like films in the early 1970s, the term ‘multiple jeopardy’ could apply. But I don’t think it trips into that very clichéd formula, which it could quite easily have done. The Hollywood Reporter points out that The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three had a plot that was “perfect for the national obsession with disaster.” But it isn’t truly a disaster flick a la The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. In my humble opinion, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three fits more with what critics Emmanuel Levy and Dave Kehr call a focus on ‘urban paranoia’. After all, the story is set in New York, which during the 1970s and into the 1980s became synonymous with crime and danger. True, there aren’t the visuals of typical urban decay or graffiti scarred trains and subways, but we get the gist of it.

The plot is simple enough and certainly not complicated. Led by Mr. ‘Blue’ (Robert Shaw), four disguised men with equally colorful names hijack a train and hold the passengers hostage, demanding $1 million in cash or they will start shooting the passengers one by one. Police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) of the Transit Authority is trying to not only negotiate the situation but also keep the hostages safe and eventually catch the crooks. At its’ very core, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a heist film.

On the surface, you could argue that there’s nothing impressive about the plot. Filler for cable TV? A made for TV midday movie? Absolutely not.

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is far better than that!

So what makes it work?

The Setting

From the opening scenes, the feel and atmosphere of the film exudes New York attitude at its’ finest and reflects the concept of urban paranoia. This is probably best expressed by John H. Dorr in his original release review in The Hollywood Reporter:

‘New Yorkers, packed together closer than any other people and living under the constant threat of municipal breakdown…’.  

The over-the-top bustling business of a major city is at every turn and there is even a feel of barely controlled chaos, from the efforts of the police to the general running of subway system, where naturally the bulk of the story is set. People are tired, fed-up and cynical and they deal with this specifically through raw humour that is expressly resigned to the fate of living in New York.  The characters of course are as much part of the animal that is New York as much as they are their own individual people, reflecting attitude that could be clichéd but actually reveals real humanity and their coping mechanisms for living in such a tumultuous city. The street scenes are also ultra-busy and even chaotic as the police try to grapple with the hostage situation and the usual New York traffic at the same time.  Even the mayor, assisted by the excellent and under-used .., wants nothing to do with his own city.

Of course, the irony is that the centre of it all occurs underneath the city in one quiet carriage filled with frightened people and a gang of four led by Mr. Blue. Filmed on the tracks of the famous the Court Street station in Brooklyn (also used in numerous films including The French Connection and the Pelham remake), it allowed for the realism that made it all work so well.

The diegetic sounds of the subways and trains also adds to a film that has a strong sense of realism and gives it, its’ gritty and raw atmosphere.

The Plot

It’s actually simple enough and almost too easy to follow. Yet we are all still wondering how the hell the gang is going to get away with it – and that’s what keep us hooked. Of course, in the course of determining how they will get away with it, there are the sarcastically soaked comments (“They’re gonna fly it to Cuba”) and even Garber offers his theory: “They’re gonna get away by asking every man, woman and child in New York City to close their eyes and count to a hundred.” The truth is that no-one except the gang has an idea.

What also makes the plot work is that our focus is permanently affixed on the plot and not interrupted or distracted by side stories a la other films of the era (such as Airport, Earthquake etc). As Roger Ebert opined, ‘the hijack is worked out in a straightforward, plausible way; the film concentrates on the communications between Walter Matthau, trying to buy time, and Robert Shaw, maintaining credibility…’.

And the ending – one of the best and this reviewer won’t spoil it for you.

The Cast and Characterisation

The performances of Walter Matthau as Lieutenant Garber and Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue are the keystones to the film’s success. The contrast in characters could not be further from each other with Roger Ebert describing ‘these fine, detailed performancesWalter Matthau is gruff, shaggy and sardonic as a Transit Authority lieutenant; Robert Shaw is clipped and cruel..’. Matthau’s Garber is a joy to watch, with that perfect balance of grim humor, pragmatism and resignation whilst Shaw is icy and calculated, carefully annunciating his words without panic. But whilst Garber flexes his quick lip with everyone else around him, he’s professional and serious as he deals with Mr. Blue. Both lock in a tense arm wrestle as the time ticks away and their interaction drives the story forward. The tension is taut, timed and the perfect driver for this tale. 

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But it’s the supporting cast and incidental characters which also make the film work and give it depth and strength. Amongst the hijackers, Hector Elizondo as the psychotic Mr. Grey is believably dangerous and adds to the ongoing tension from the moment he lecherously flicks his tongue at an attractive lady on the train to his penchant for violence, as he casually tells a passenger that he ‘will shoot your pee-pee off’ whilst chewing gum, and looking for any excuse to commit an act of brutality. Martin Balsam as the nervous, former Transit employee with a grudge gives a solid and measured performance that he always delivered as an actor of his caliber.

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Dick O’Neill as Frank Correll, the bad-tempered controller, is a contrast to the relatively calm Garber and Jerry Stiller as Lieutenant Rico Patrone (‘who on weekends works for the Mafia’) shares Garber’s wry humour. Tom Pedi as the angry Transit supervisor who perennially yells finds an unsuspected fate that offers a quick turn from the humor. Even the short scenes with Lee Wallace as the Mayor and Tony Roberts as Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle are not overdone and add to the tension of the film, again perfectly peppered with humour.

Even the small, incidental roles are worthwhile. Waiting for the train he is about to hijack, Mr. Blue looks at the dandified Vietnam vet who catches Blue looking and asks ‘what’s wrong dude? Ain’t you never seen a sunset before?’ After brief contemplation, even the cool and deadly Mr. Blue cannot help but almost smile.

The Director

Joseph Sargent has spent the 1960s directing television before moving into television films and cinema releases in the 1970s. Best known for this film being reviewed, it was also his best work.

In terms of how characters are utilized, the director Joseph Sargent is astute in the concept that less is more. None of the characters are over-used and Sargent makes sure that the key focus is on his two main stars, Matthau and Shaw and the tension between them in resolving the hijack situation.

Sargent keeps the film taut by allowing some insight into the heist, with the plan going into action as soon as the film starts. He allows for some slackening just to hook the audience, relieving the pressure with incidental humor and then reeling us in, as the action gets more and more serious. As a result, Sargent shows himself as a director sensitive to the audience’s sense of story development and as Ebert mentions does not allow the film to fall into cliché but makes the story more than believable. The audience is constantly manipulated and just as we feel we have found the rhythm of the film, Sargent shifts the gears a little so to speak. Tension is manipulated with the subtle touch which assists in hooking the audience and at no point is it drawn out and over-cooked.

The Dialogue

Aside from what people say, how they say it is the greatest revealer of how people feel, what shapes their thoughts and what world they live in. The dialogue is all New York and reflects the frustrations living in a chaotic city, managed through cynical humor, heavy sarcasm and combative tones.

From start to finish, it’s sharp, quick and fully-loaded.

The key dialogue between Matthau and Shaw is particularly interesting because most of it happens over the train’s radio connection. The cool and measured tone of Shaw up against Matthau’s gravely, Lower East Side accent dripping with sarcastic asides and insults, works beautifully. But there is a bitterness to the humour and an acidity that is hard to miss between the laughs of the audience.

However, all the characters seem quick to insult with the fast talk and acidic sarcasm. Again, the dialogue is reflective of living in a chaotic New York. Contextually it was a time when New York was also bankrupt, suffering from urban decay and gang activity and a rising crime rate.

The Musical Score

It’s one of my favourite 70s film scores and it’s heaving basslines drive deep like the very subways that crisscross underneath New York City. Composed and conducted by David Shire (also responsible for The Conversation and All The President’s Men), the score is ‘every bit as vital to the film’s tempo, tone and key scenes’ as Steve Grzesiak correctly states. The funkiest horns stab across smooth and slippery percussion, giving the audience a sinister feel and a sense of mounting tension.

It’s a multi-layered groove that fits like a glove, reflecting the unpredictability of living in New York City, where you could be on your way home from work and find yourself taken hostage.

According to Grzesiak, ‘Shire was hired quite late and wasn’t given a huge amount of time to work with…’ but that’s what perhaps it ‘works in his favour’ so that when ‘the music starts up again, it actually feels like it matters’. There’s no wasted space or time and like the rest of the film, it leaves the music tight, taut and building the tension.

Final Comments

Michael Sragow in The New Yorker makes an accurate assessment of the film as ‘once, just a solid thriller, now a time capsule spiked with amphetamines. It doesn’t rely on the sparkles, noise and CGI that cinema has relied on for some time. Instead, we are gifted with a tough film that is trimmed of the fat. It shows what can be done with amazing talent, substance and lack of pretence. The Taking Of Pelham 1,2,3 is rarely spoken of when talking about films from the 1970s. But it should be and often.

This entry is inspired by Movie Rob‘s Guesstimation Series with a focus on New York Films of the 70’s, which he graciously allowed me to choose. Please visit Movie Rob to see his incredible reviews on great films from the 1970s. Thanks so much for the opportunity, Rob!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

8 thoughts on “Great Films Of The 1970s: The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974)

  1. 70s movies are something I can take or leave. Mostly leave. But not this one. I remember seeing it the first time, not that long ago, and it blew me away. I was stunned. It’s one of those movies that manages to capture the spirit of New York like no other. Many movies have tried, not all of them succeeded. This one did. It put its finger on the pulse of the weird strange town and nails the heart and soul of it.

    Granted, I didn’t live through the down and out New York of the 70s, I lived there from 1999-2011. In the 70s and 80s NY was certainly a city veering on constant collapse and perpetual bankruptcy. But for all that, I always considered Pelham a love letter to NY in all its gritty ugly chaotic beauty. It is certainly a time capsule but certain things have still not changed, thankfully. The movie translates well into other decades.

    “However, all the characters seem quick to insult with the fast talk and acidic sarcasm. Again, the dialogue is reflective of living in a chaotic New York.”
    Indeed. That unapologetically snot-nosed in-your-face attitude is typical. I’ve become such a big fan of Walter Matthau and he nails the sarcastic, crass, occasionally obnoxious, I-don’t-take-any-crap-from-nobody attitude of a New Yorker who nevertheless cares deeply about the hostages and the city itself. I haven’t really encountered that anywhere else and I still miss it.
    And no political correctness. It wasn’t a city for snowflakes. Still isn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love your description of the film as a ‘love letter’ to New York and right now I’m highly envious (in the nicest way) that you lived in the great city. What an incredible experience that must have been. I’ll get there one day!

      New York is a city which always grabbed my imagination and has never let go. From everything I’ve read and heard, the film does doesn’t fail as a love letter because it’s raw emotion and deeply honest.

      I think it succeeds in capturing that spirit because it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, it’s not manufactured and shot in situ and of course the cast are all native New Yorkers, who get it.

      As you said there are some great film set in New York but the city acts as a ‘backdrop’ rather than a character that breathes on the whole experience. (If that makes any sense?)

      Great to hear from you as always! 🙂

      Like

  2. I agree with Margot Shelby when she says this film is a love letter to NYC. I watched it for the first time a few months ago, and this is not a script that could be set anywhere else. The casting, the dialogue, the tension are all perfect. I can’t believe I waited so long to see it.

    Terrific review, Paul, as always. Your essays are always very insightful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It certainly is a love letter and Margot Shelby put it perfectly. I also think you are correct that it’s a script which could only be set in NYC. All the planets lined up for this one and it’s an outstanding film.

      Thanks so much for the kinds words!

      Liked by 1 person

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