This Friday (August 4), the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s After Midnite program kicks off a new series about terrorists and the guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme who kill them, and they’re starting it off with a truly brilliant film: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.
If you’re a shithed millenial (like us) reading this and wondering why we’re not discussing the virtues of John Travolta’s “Travolting” leather-daddy mustache and cracking jokes about Denzel’s virtues as an everyman and James Gandolfini’s bad Bloomberg impression, well, we’re not talking about the 2009 Tony Scott (vastly underrated) remake; we’re talking about the original 1974 classic here. It’s significantly less flashy and garish (we still love you and miss you, Mr. Scott) but it’s definitely the smoother and better picture, which can be handly distinguished from the remake by its title: You spell out the numbers in the original, where the numerals will do just fine for modern audiences. Dumbing down? Your guess is as good as ours.
Directed by Joseph Sargent, a journeymen who’d go onto such projects as the 1977 Gregory Peck-starring Macarthur biopic and 1987’s infamous Jaws: the Revenge, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is about a group of color-codenamed criminals who hijack (train-jack?) a downtown-bound 6 train which, as Walter Matthau explains at one point in the film, earns its name from a combination of its point of departure and the time at which it departed. They want a million dollars, or they’re going to kill the 17 people that they’re holding hostage on the train, and their main point of contact is a lowly guy behind a microphone. Sargent takes a very real fear at the time, hijacking (or “skyjacking” as it was known more contemporaneously then), and it’s even alluded to by Jerry Stiller’s character at one point, who suggests that the criminals are going to force the subway car to land in Cuba. It’s one of the first films of its kind in the modern era — a sort-of disaster film more about the fears of terrorism and the very real fear of being in public spaces — that would later go on and be popularized over the years in films like John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday and would hit its zenith in the 1988 modern classic and candidate for best action movie ever made, Die Hard. And it crackles with life and excitement throughout its 104 minutes.
Pelham, despite its considerable strengths as a thriller, is especially notable for the roll-call of brilliant character actors that comprise its primary cast. Most recognizable among them might be our ostensible protagonist, Walter Matthau, six years out from The Odd Couple and three years past a career-best performance in the tragically underseen Elaine May-directed black comedy A New Leaf. He plays a Transit Authority Police Lieutenant who’s stuck behind a desk for much of the runtime dealing with the hostages, and it’s a decently thankless role — he’s saddled with some poorly-aged racist humor involving some Japanese businessmen, and is surrounded by a group of flustered MTA officials who fail to differentiate themselves well — but he pulls it off with aplomb, and is rewarded with one of the all-time great final gags in cinema history for his troubles. Yet’s the tableau of New Yorkers that matter significantly more: The dumb cops, the sick mayor, the assorted hostages from all walks of life- than Matthau himself. It’s like they’re reacting to a hostile invasion from a viral intruder, who ultimately takes the shape of the badass and collected Robert Shaw.
Shaw’s Mr. Blue is ultimately the most compelling character here, though he may not be our POV or our true protagonist, and that’s because he’s commanding and cool as fuck. He’s Hans Gruber by way of Alain Delon, a criminal mastermind and terrorist who is ruthlessly efficient all the way through, and his prim accent only highlights the fact that he’s just so separate from this earthy island. His ruthless efficiency — the constant awareness of time, the quick disposal of all things related to the robbery once the time is up, and his constant policing of the more criminal elements of his gang — is only matched by his sense of lazy calm. He spends much his time talking with Matthau deeply invested in a cheap paperback, acting as if the barking coming from the microphone is an intrusion on his quiet meditation. He’s stylish as fuck, too, his flat grays and proper dress contrasting with Matthau’s faux-clown costume and the hostages’ empty aesthetics. Sure, he may be evil as all-get-out, but he’s badass; the kind of transcendent cool that looks so effortless yet is ultimately elusive to each and every person not named Robert Shaw. Even in death, he’s cold as ice — he asks Matthau if New York still has the death penalty and electrocutes himself on the third rail upon finding out that they do.
The rest of the gang Mr. Blue’s gang, by design, blend together, but one character sticks out in particular: Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), the nebbishy train disgruntled train operator who has a cold and is a source of much of the film’s humor. The ending gags involving him trying to hide the cash he’s accumulated from the robbery are wonderful, and it’s lovely to see him get a significant moment in the sun in the years after his Oscar win for Fred Coe’s A Thousand Clowns. You’ll probably recognize him from either Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (in which he’s the PI who has that infamous fall down the staircase) or Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, where he acts as a juror alongside Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. He feels naturalistic as well, and though the movie kind of runs the gamut from melodrama to comedy, it never manages to be vulgar or lose sight of the value of its setting and the people within it.
In a great deal of ways, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is New York, reflected through a crafted, exaggerated lens and blasted back to you in the biggest way possible, and, along with Walter Hill’s The Warriors and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver acts as a sort of time-capsule for the post-Vietnam ennui of the city’s bankruptcy. It’s an essential film in understanding the psyche of, for better or worse, America’s most vivid and cinematic city, and you should definitely check it out this Friday.