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.

Rififi (1955): The Best Of French Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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Without a doubt, one of the most important and brilliantly shaped exemplars of film noir is the French crime film Rififi (1955). Directed by Jules Dassin and drawn from the Auguste Le Breton’s same-titled novel, Rififi is a lesson in how to build tension, draw on detail to build and shape meaning and reaches deeper tropes in the futility of crime and even the stupidity of those who engage in criminal activity. What also makes Rififi stand out, is its’ cynicism and gritty immersion in the world of the gangster, with violence and brutality the hallmarks of that world.

Despite its’ being described as a French film, its’ director, Jules Dassin, was an American – blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and reviving his career in France. Dassin was a talented auteur who had already made his name with films such as Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Night And The City (1950), respected films in the film noir canon. But he was also very adept at comedy with The Canterville Ghost (1944) and would also make another heist film with comedic strains in 1964’s Topkapi. Yet perhaps Rififi is his finest film; one with themes that run deep and cinematic techniques that stand strong in how good cinema is created and shaped, in terms of pacing, rhythm and sensibility to mis-en-scene. If the film were cynical, dark and eviscerating, then it would also reflect the experience of Dassin’s treatment at the hands of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee).

 

The story is a heist film and despite the pre-existence of one my favourite films, Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), it is easy to see why Rififi is often called the daddy of all heist films. Set in Paris, the plot seems simple enough – a group of crooks aim to pull off the robbery of a jewellery store on the Rue de Rivolli. Yet the film takes the audience further out than what might be anticipated, as we not only are taken through the intricate and painstaking preparations for the job but also the unforgettable robbery scene and the final act where the protagonist faces the reality of the situation and where his code leads him to make some tough decisions.

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Tony “le Stephanois” (Jean Servais) is a newly released ex-con, who has just completed a five-year term for a fellow gangster named Jo “Le Suédois” (Carl Mohner). Tony is approached by Mario (Robert Manuel), who suggests they rob a jewelry store by crudely smashing the front window and grabbing the jewels. Naturally, Tony declines and seeks out his old girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret). But the reunion turns sour when he discovers Mado has taken up with Grutter (Marcel Lupocivi), a nightclub owner and gangster, whom Tony is not so fond of. In his anger and hurt, he beats her, channeling five years of pent-up frustration. Going against his earlier better judgment, he re-considers Jo and Mario’s offer and agrees to rob the store but declares they will go further and rob the safe. Taking on the safe cracker, Cesar (played by Dassin himself under a pseudonym), the team is complete. The plan put in place is meticulously planned and ingenious in its’ conception. And this reviewer will leave it the audience to find out what the plan is.

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What follows is undoubtedly approximately 30 minutes of the most tense, perfectly constructed cinema ever made. As Roger Ebert noted, ‘the audience hears nothing but taps, breathing, some plaster falling into an umbrella used to catch it, some muffled coughs, and then, after the alarm is disabled, the screech of the drills used to cut into safe’. It is genius on the part of Dassin, who recognized the impact of not having the men talk as they are undertaking the robbery. The term ‘keeping the audience on the edge of their seats’ was certainly invented after viewing this scene. Interestingly enough, as a number of critics have pointed out, the scene becomes the centerpiece of the film, rather than the climax, reflecting Dassin using the heist to tell more about the men carrying out the crime than the crime itself. It is superb manipulation of the audience.

 

Needless to say, the third act will be played out with Tony facing greater difficulties than he anticipated. There won’t be any spoiler here!

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There is certainly a contrast, stylistically, with earlier films of Dassin’s, particularly Brute Force and Naked City, both of which maintain Hollywood’s stylized approach. However, Rififi feels far darker, far more rugged and as Alan Scherstuhl opines in the Village Voice, ‘throbs with his (Dassin’s) anger’. The violence, whilst not visually explicit, is certainly so from an emotional and psychological point of view. As murder is carried out, the camera moves to the face of the perpetrator and not the act of violence itself. Dassin wants us to see what manner of men these gangsters are. Tony and his gang are anti-heroes and the audience is breathless as they conduct the robbery, yet they draw us into the darkness and will not let us go so easily. Tony cuts a sad figure underneath the tough exterior; his sickly coughing a metaphor for a deeper sickness and his ability to carry out violence is also disquieting to say the least.

It would be far too easy to explain the film’s ruggedness on the meager budget. True, Dassin faced limitations but he was no maverick and had already proved that he was a skilled director who had worked on a number of strong productions. Interestingly, Jean Servais, the film’s star, had his own troubles for some time, struggling with alcoholism and seeing his career stumble. Dassin would also use the locales of Paris with sublime naturalness, bringing an even greater realism to the screen. Grim and gritty at times, Dassin also uses those locales to convey Tony’s isolation and desperation, in the streets of Paris.

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Cole Smithey in 2014 made an interesting observation about the key characters:

‘Rififi’s criminal anti-heroes are made up of outliers who, like Dassin, are struggling to squeak out a living in a foreign land. The gang members have names with an attribution that separates him from the local Parisian culture. Jo le Suedois (or “the Swede”) is the father of Tony’s godson, and the thief Tony went to jail to protect. Tony is referred to as “le Stéphanois,” an allusion to the Saint-Étienne region of eastern central France from which he hails…’ 

Smithey’s point is a poignant one – Dassin’s directorial vision sees the gangsters ultimately as outsiders to what constitutes a civilized society and walking down different streets with another set of rules in place. Break those rules and death may arrive at your door.

 

Upon its’ release, Rififi was heralded as a powerful film, remarked upon for its’ realism and tension. Legendary French film critic and director Francois Truffaut famously declared, “out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen”. Contemporary critics seem to generally be in unison with Truffaut, with Sherilyn Connelly stating quite accurately, ‘…if elements of it (the heist film) seem overly familiar now, that’s only because they were done first here, and picked up by every heist film that followed’. Yet Rififi does more than set the tone and standard for the heist film – it also delves deep into the soul of humanity, looking into the aftermath of the heist with focus. The revelations shouldn’t shock us yet they do. The concept of honour amongst thieves is one we have seen time and time again fail to ring true. As one of the prime lessons of film noir, the audience sees the fatalism and futility in the desperate actions of the characters and their humanity is not only misguided but frail and weak as well.

Rififi would basically establish the sub-genre of the heist film and receive great praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Dassin must have felt vindicated as a director and there must have been some satisfaction when he received the award for Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.

Chris Cabin in Slant Magazine beautifully described Rififi as being ‘soaked to the bone in dread’, which of course reflects the fatalism that so often permeates film noir. But it also reflects Dassin’s own sensibilities in the face of his own difficulties. The protagonist, Tony, is not unlike Dassin himself – holding to a particular belief and code, only to find that not everyone sees it that way and finding the rug pulled out from under him in the process.

But hey – isn’t that film noir?

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.