The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Director: Joseph Sargent
Writer: John Godey (novel) Peter Stone (screenplay)
Actors: Robert Shaw, Walter Mathau, Hector Elizondo
Streaming on Amazon Prime
In the history of heist movies, bank robbery movies, and hostage situation movies, personality is what really matters. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which is one of the greatest examples of all three of these types of crime story, has more personality on display than an off-broadway production of Our Town. This personality, which is 1970’s New York City blue-collar through and through, puts much-needed life into what could have seemed a fairly grim little story. In this story, Bernard Ryder (Robert Shaw) and three associates take a subway car full of passengers hostage, after which things take a predictable turn for the worse. As the somewhat dark story sputters its way to a sobering conclusion, its audience is kept rapturous, enlivened by interesting characters and entertained by delightful performances.
Walter Mathau, as Police Lt. Zachary Garber, for example, is a hilarious and emotionally relatable protagonist. One sequence early in the movie in which Garber (Mathau) repeatedly insults a Japanese tour group is particularly hysterical, as it contributes greatly to the crafting of a compelling story line. “This way, dummies, just step this way, dummies,” the lieutenant sputters, annoyed at being relegated to giving tours of the train station. But on this day, his luck changes, when Richard Ryder (Robert Shaw) hijacks the train car he’s on, touching off a deadly sequence of events. Robert Shaw, as in The Sting, conveys a perfectly single-minded commitment, and steps in as the perfect foil for Mathau’s cheeky expertise. Watching these two actors play off each other through a two-way radio is marvelous, as the actors ratchet the tension up to extreme levels.
The showdown between Garber (Mathau) and Ryder (Shaw) takes up most of the movie, but underneath this main plot, the city of New York can be seen as a character. The way characters talk to each other, as if they’re late for another appointment, and the way that traffic is a permanent inconvenience for everyone at all times, combine to make Pelham One Two Three a movie that will forever be chained to New York. One character, Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi) is New Yorker through and through, with the heaviest accent of them all, which he uses to say lines like “I’m gonna nail his pecker to the wall for this,” and “If I gotta watch my language just ‘cause they let a few broads in I’m gonna quit.’” When Caz makes flippantly sexist assertions like this, it is more entertaining than anything else, as if his loudly sexist opinions are more a relic than a warning, reminding us how much fun America can be when allowed to be itself.
Fun is the word that chiefly leaps to mind when discussing The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, as its breezily preposterous story (it did not surprise me to learn that the novel this movie is based on is fiction) and its understated comic relief collaborate to make the movie’s 104 minute runtime zip by. Directed by Joseph Sergeant, a journeyman director who’s biggest credit next to this movie is Jaws: The Revenge, seems to have a deft hand at pacing, though he’s all thumbs when it comes to emotional impact. If looking for any kind of depth or expression of true emotion, one should probably look elsewhere, but for an exemplary by-the-books heist narrative, there’s hardly one better The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.