Likely more purely entertaining than any documentary about the modern history of New York, and more edifying than many, Joseph Sargent's near-masterpiece captures the city as it was (or, at least, as we imagine it was) and offers it up inside the kind of fun, thrill-heavy package that would still work whether there was anything else interesting about it or not.
Directed by Joseph Sargent
Written by Peter Stone (based on the novel by Morton Freedgood)
With Walter Matthau (Lt. Zachary Garber), Jerry Stiller (Lt. Rico Patrone), Martin Balsam (Mr. Green), Earl Hindman (Mr. Gray), Hector Elizondo (Mr. Grey), and Robert Shaw (Mr. Blue)
Before we do anything else, let's just talk about that title. It's a thing of pure shining perfection, hiding right behind its prosaic description of the film's narrative stakes. It's the way it spells out that One Two Three, I think, the same as the callsign given to the major setting of the picture, an ill-fated Six train that leaves New York's Pelham Station one day at 1:23 p.m.
That callsign is, indeed, spoken aloud as "1-2-3"—in compliance with best radio practice—but you can't help but interpret The Taking of Pelham One Two Three as a count-up to a moment of decisive action, or as the numbered steps of a flawless plan. This is ideal, for no apprehension could suit the movie you're about to see better—Pelham being, after all, one of the most finely-tooled plot-mechanical thrillers of its era. The 2009 Tony Scott remake, a worthwhile flick in its own right, albeit for mostly different reasons, helps to illustrate my point. It redesignates its title with a numeric sequence (1 2 3), and while the general effect is the same, it just doesn't hit quite as hard as when it's written out, over the course of seven whole letters:
But I'll leave it at that. Since one day we'll doubtless devote our full attention to that particular filmmaker, we needn't concern ourselves any further with Scott the Younger right now. Instead, let's consider the film Joseph Sargent made, back in 1974—and likely the highwater mark of his career. The former-actor-turned-director had been moving from win to win in the early 70s, inaugurating the decade of his greatest successes with Colossus: The Forbin Project. (While his previous feature had been that favorite of Sterling Archer, White Lightning.) These days, sadly, Sargent is probably best-remembered for his late-career tumble into abject garbage, especially Jaws: The Revenge. Not that Pelham was greeted as much else other than cheap pablum itself, in the year of its release. This was the manner in which critics were able to backhand-compliment it; although, importantly, they were compelled to compliment it somehow.
In their defense, Pelham is a simple thriller—arguably, even a shallow one. It revolves around its titular taking, and thus does it begin, as four men, each arrayed with smart mustaches, a set of glasses, and a color-themed nomme de guerre, board Pelham 123. Upon the arrival of their chosen moment, they unveil their automatic weapons, alongside their criminal intention: to seize control of the lead cars of the train (detaching and abandoning the rest) and to hold the commuters and crew hostage, in exchange for one million dollars in cash, invoiced to the City of New York. The city officials have one hour—no more, no less—to get the ransom together and deliver it. All the while, it falls upon Lt. Garber, the ranking officer of the transit police, to keep those hostages alive and negotiate with their ransomers' leader.
But the other subject of Pelham—exactly as much its subject as its expeditiously-spun caper yarn—is the city itself, and Garber is just the face we grow to like the most. For all the claustrophobia of the subway tunnel that serves as the epicenter of Pelham's drama, when we're above-ground, we dash about with high hysteria, as the city, from its mayor down to its beat cops, flails about desperately in pursuit of the relatively straightforward task laid before it, of securing and transporting a million bucks into a hole in the ground.
In the meantime, snippets of characterization paint Sargent's impression of a febrile, vital metropolis. Take Peter Stone's script, which isn't remotely above indulging in stereotype. (And it lets you know this early: "What's the matter, dude, ain't you never seen a sunset before?" says the flashily-dressed black man in response to Mr. Blue's side-eye, though I assure you that Pelham pulls off this ultra-stock business so tremendously well that you'd miss him badly if he weren't here, and in the specific form he takes.) The key is that it makes its stereotypes work for the greater good, sketching out characters whose individual qualities don't matter much (or at all) to the plot, but whose presence and personality seasons great pulp into great cinema.
And that's Pelham's New York for you. It could hardly be a better representation of our general idea of New York in the 1970s—with all the credibility that comes from actually being made in New York in the 1970s. Hence it really is Old New York: a cacophonic hellhole where everyone is sweating, swearing, and screaming at each other all the damn time, often in colorful ways, and even more often with gorgeously terrible accents. (Garber on his HQ: "the noiv center!") Yet, oddly, they don't seem to actually hate each other, and they don't seem completely doomed. And this is a grip on NYC that later Gotham Apocalypse films, like The Warriors, Taxi Driver, or Escape From New York, don't really have. It's not entirely unique: Dog Day Afternoon has very much the same kind of vibe. But DDA is certainly less out-and-out entertaining.
But if Pelham's enduring achievement is its accidental creation of a jam-packed time capsule, that's no surprise, considering that Pelham was blessed with a cinematographer whose work was basically synonymous with "1970s grit." This was Owen Roizman, whose lens had a tendency to bring out the ugliness of a culture sliding into decline. Three years earlier, Roizman had shot The French Connection, similarly-focused upon New York grime—and so Godforsakenly gritty that it just skids off the DP's usual scale of "artfully ugly" and into "just plum ugly." But, for Pelham, the buzzing grain and fluorescent documentarian dinge remain in effect, only here it seems so much less like a great big pose. (Ironically maybe, since, if anything, it's more of one.) Even so, of his major efforts, Pelham might remain his best and his most characteristic: with Three Days of the Condor, just one year later, he came to be dissuaded from overprocessing his film—like all trends, overprocessing wound up dying in the fullness of time—and the hyperdistinctive look of movies like Pelham slowly dried up as one decade swallowed another.
But none of this would matter very much at all if Pelham weren't a really cracking good time, too, whose most obvious purpose was always to make some money by entertaining an audience. (In case I didn't make it crystal clear above, I have no affection whatsoever for the somehow-more-successful French Connection—for it throws the balance entirely in favor of capturing its setting and its own much meaner mood, and, car chase or no, isn't even slightly enjoyable as a result.)
The cleverest single thing Stone's script does is to play both its opposing sides so effectively: it's one thing to root for Garber against Mr. Blue, and this might have been more-or-less adequate; but what really keeps Pelham humming is that we wind up rooting for Mr. Blue at the same time, in spite of the fact that we couldn't possibly have any illusions about his moral standing.
It's an easy trick, almost naked in its narrative function, but it certainly works here as well as it ever has: Pelham simply gives its villain an even worse villain to deal with. (And if this sounds familiar, it's the exact same trick that Reservoir Dogs plays, because it's sure as hell no coincidence that the color-coded codenames of Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Grey are likewise replicated there.) Pelham's villains, counterintuitively, wind up better-drawn than its heroes, and it's easy to gravitate to Mr. Blue when he's the only one keeping the leash on Mr. "Thrown out of the Mafia (!)" Grey, who might well prefer a slaughter to a payday. Our natural tendency to side with the more proactive, exciting character—and, in a caper film, this is never going to be the stolid copper—does all the rest, and voila! Out of a patchwork of cliches, Pelham suddenly becomes a multi-layered thriller of effortless watchability, in defiance of its fundamental mood, which is often funny, and sometimes even approaches a dark-humored farce, but is restrained from it by its general, unrelenting 70s dourness, and its ever-present thriller tension, driven by David Shire's bombardment-jazz musical score.
But then, Pelham's final shot freeze-frame counters the dourness of the film in such an adorable, almost goofy way that you couldn't ever call the film dour overall. (It is, let us simply say, peak Matthau.) This last moment does almost as much to lift the film up as its climax does, wherein we learn that our Mr. Blue may not have shown us a shred of empathy for a whole 104 minutes, but he does possess an ineradicable dignity. (Which he demonstrates by going out in the most inspiringly undignified way Robert Shaw possibly could, including his final moments in Jaws.) I dance on the edge of spoilers, because this scene is frankly incredible: an extraordinary example of how the most minimal elements—lo-fi special effects, terse screenwriting, and the most laconic acting conceivable—can still add up to something truly legendary.
It's not flawless—for such a tight thriller, it has a disagreeable way of losing hold of its more minor plot threads. By the time of the denouement, for example, it's noticeable that Garber (like the screenwriter himself, one suspects) has largely ceased to care at all about the fate of the hostages; and one can, if one one wishes, demerit our heroes for their kind-of-stupid inability to deduce the method by which the hijackers intend to defeat their train's "foolproof" safety measures. (Measures which Matthau, in the film's least-natural moment, lays out with some direly serious pay-attention-there's-a-quiz-later exposition.) The storytelling inelegance that actually reaches up and smacks you in the face, however, is Stone and Sargent's brutal disregard for a film-long mystery that they set up almost right at the very beginning, involving the identity of a plainclothes police officer who'd wound up aboard the train: the reasonable viewer might expect that it'd at least be one of the hostages who had lines. (That this subplot ultimately amounts to approximately jack and shit is, I think, supposed to be a joke. But it's still annoying, even if it's a funny joke, given a smirking punchline based on the notion that Garber—whose internal struggle with sexism and racism throughout the film has marked him as a better man than his coworkers, who'd prefer to just fucking wallow in theirs—has apparently spent the past hour talking himself into the idea that the undercover cop must be a woman.)
Yet these are mostly little nitpicks. It's hard to hold them against a film that is, altogether, a terrific piece of genre entertainment and that, also, serves as a handy ethnography of a lost world. Roger Ebert called it "classy trash," back in '74; yet for every year added between our day and its own, Pelham looks less and less like it was ever any kind of trash at all.