For its fans The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the 70s movie. This sounds like heresy. But let's be clear about this; there is no way to convince anyone that Joseph Sargent's terse, fast and energetic thriller about four men who hijack a subway train in an ugly, dirty, crowded and dysfunctional New York, is the equal to Chinatown (1974) or The Godfather (1972) or Taxi Driver (1976), or even less well remembered films as Shampoo (1975) or The Last Detail (1973).
But if you want to get some kind of understanding of what was special and unique about 70s filmmaking in the mainstream, Pelham is terrific. Released in October 1974 it was probably the movie that was most emblematic of the way a mass entertainment flick was able to incorporate the gritty stylings of 70s art-films in a totally convincing way. The move away from a romanticised kind of visual storytelling is too often mistaken as being the exclusive territory of 'serious movies about serious things'.
Those unique quirks that critics rave about that are routinely associated with auteur-driven personal projects leap out of the texture in Pelham's straightforward suspense plot: the lack of conventional gloss, the effort to convey lived-in detail, a clear-eyed, unromantic view of human behaviour, and odd-ball casting. If anything, Pelham has more in common with another kind of romanticism that dominated the 70s…'the uglier we make it, the truer it seems' strategy of exploitation pics of the era, like Shaft.
Shot wide-screen by cinematographer Owen Roizman, in the same poo-brown and black tones he used on William Friedkin's The French Connection, Pelham's grungy, you-are-there vibe seems like a deliberate goad to the even-then old-fashioned chocolate box glisten of the biggest hit of 1974, The Towering Inferno.
Pelham's 'hijack and the hostage' premise was indeed, bundled with the era's disaster pics by critics who complained that the subway carriage under siege is peopled by too obvious a cross-section of New Yawkers – an old Jewish man, a Hooker, an Hysterical Spanish woman, a Pimp (Black, of course…).
But that favoured game of disaster movie fans - the 'Who's gonna get killed and when?' - is sidetracked in Pelham early on. The details of the crime and the manner in which it is carried out is the juice here.
All four of the bad guys are dressed in a style that was definitely passé in 1974: bushy moustaches, tweedy hat and trench coat, and dark rimmed glasses. It's one of the film's best gags and fine ironies; these guys aren't worth a second look. It's revealed that each sports a colour code name: Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) (and yes, Tarantino's Dogs were named in homage to Pelham).
The hijacking involves precision timing, co-ordinated behaviour, and non-verbal cues. Still, Sargent and screenwriter Peter Stone throw most of their energies (and screen time) behind the cat and mouse manoeuvrings between Robert Shaw's stoic leader of the baddies and Walter Matthau's transit cop. Fresh from the mega-hit of The Sting (1973), Shaw was more a well-known face more than a 'star'. An earnest, hard and muscular screen presence, Shaw is perfect as the mercenary-turned-hijacker. In an age when cool deadly professionalism is delivered with a psychopathic glint and cornball one-liners, Shaw's villain has a human edge that is almost endearing (he's so chilled that he spends a lot of the movie with his head stuck in a puzzle book). The major give away to his true homicidal nature is Shaw's voice; he delivers his lines in a sound that's like a talking-elevator channelling Richard Burton.
If Shaw looks like a dangerous accountant, Matthau appears as a sloppy uncle. Dressed in an old fashioned ensemble of sports jacket and ill-fitting trousers Matthau's Zach Garber comes on as a social stumble bum (casually and un-self-consciously racist, impatient with niceties) but his mind is sharp. Even then, this characterisation was losing its novelty (think Columbo). But, like so much of Pelham, it's the incidental details that are far more gratifying than the way it negotiates conventions and archetypes; like the brief scene where Garber has to take some visitors from the Japan public railway system on a tour of the New York HQ (actually a precise re-construction of the NY Transit Authority control centre). This “show and tell” is linked to one of the film's big gags: New York as a city populated with bored, harassed, over-heated, fast-talking, foul-mouthed ugly people who shout at each other all of the time because nothing works at any time!
Based on a best seller that exploited Big City paranoia with a gimmicky plot (no one hijacked trains, they went after planes) the film got good reviews from the pop critics but the so-called “sophisticated” scribes jumped all over it. “Sargent doesn't make points, he drops weights,” was how New Yorker critic Pauline Kael summed up the director's pushy style. Since Sargent was essentially a TV director (Kojak, Longstreet), critics didn't accord him much respect and they had little time for the no-nonsense efficiency of his lucid camera (despite protestations to the contrary keeping the plot lines, characters, motivations and action untangled requires considerable directorial élan). Worse still, the urban decay, and bureaucratic bungling the film hedges around was considered bad taste, as in “what's a thriller doing commenting on our terrible, messed up city?”
Indeed Pelham is glib on points of politics, race and social unrest. It is a modest picture and the swearing and racial slurs (still a screen novelty in mainstream fare in the mid-70s) are used for shock/comic effect.
Its attitude could best be summed up as being of the nature of a cheap-shot political cartoon – sharp, rather than substantial, cynical and a little heartless. The film was a big hit, certainly because it was an efficient thriller, but also in a sense, because the line it was running was “true” if over-stated. And if there was one thing that connected with the mass audience in the mid-70s it was a shared sense of being gypped.
In the film's major sub-plot the Mayor (Lee Wallace) is depicted as a figure of fun (when he appears at the scene to show support for the hijacked passengers the crowd boos him). Critics thought this was a soft target.
But then, by the mid 70s New York was a metropolis in crisis. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy (something mentioned in the film). In 1975 when President Gerald Ford refused NY economic relief from the federal purse, the New York Daily News tabloid ran a banner headline, summing up the mood of anger and resentment: “Ford to city: Drop Dead.” The Daily News' cruel sense of political expediency could be a line straight of Pelham. In the movie when the Mayor is haggling over the political fall-out that comes from paying off a million bucks to the bad guys to free the hand-full of hostages his wife argues: “Think about what you'll get in return…12 votes.”
How does Tony Scott's remake compare to the original? Read our review here
Watch 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three'
Saturday 30 January, 12:35am on SBS VICELAND (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Action, Crime, Thriller
Director: Joseph Sargent
Starring: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Héctor Elizondo, Earl Hindman