WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: A subway train is seized by four armed robbers who take eighteen passengers hostage and cause New York Transit Authority police officer Zachary Garber a massive headache. As the callous leader of the gang demands $1 million and threatens to kill a hostage for every minute the money is late, the authorities race to get them the cash without loss of life. However, the gang of four are unpredictable, fractious and as dangerous to each other as to the passengers.
Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walther Matthau) of the New York Transit Authority Police has a pressing excuse to cut short a tour he’s giving to Japanese visitors when the subway train designated Pelham One Two Three makes an unscheduled stop between stations. As Garber quickly discovers, a group of robbers have taken the train, or at least part of it, hostage.
Though they are dressed identically, the colour-coded robbers are a disparate group: clear-thinking, ruthless leader Mr Blue (Robert Shaw); taciturn Mr Brown (Earl Hindman); edgy ex-mafia man Mr Grey (Hector Elizondo), who shows an unsettling relish in his work; and sniffly Mr Green (Martin Balsam), who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt and worries that he’s not going to see out the day.
When Garber calls to find out what’s going on, Blue explains their demands: they want $1 million from the city, and to make sure they get it, they will kill a hostage for every minute the money is delayed. Garber tries to reason with Blue and keep his mixed bag of hostages alive, but it’s not as if those around him have a single objective either: Coordinator Frank Correll (Dick O‘Neill) just wants to keep the train network running; Garber’s boss Rico (Jerry Stiller) just wants to read his paper; and the beleaguered, bed-ridden mayor doesn’t care what happens as long as it improves his poll ratings. With the clock ticking, Garber has to keep Blue in the dark about the slow progress of the money, all the while hoping that a plain-clothes officer on the train will spring into action. In any event, he doesn’t see how the robbers can possibly get out of the subway system alive: for some of them, he’s absolutely right.
The thing that instantly hits you about James Sargeant’s adaptation of John Godey’s novel is how completely unfussy and unshowy it is. The ‘taking’ of the train happens early on and the drama unfolds in an uncomplicated but effective manner, the action presented in a fluid, matter-of-fact fashion and delivered with a sly sense of humour: ‘What do they expect for their lousy 35 cents,’ Correll says as the drama escalates, ’to live forever?’
As it rolls along, the film introduces a host of colourful characters, from the woman in the control room whose sanitary needs have caused no end of trouble, to the mayor’s pushy deputy, Warren (Tony Roberts). Nobody stops to explain themselves or the situation, they just get on with the job (I wish I could say the same about many of today‘s bloated blockbusters). Matthau (grumpy) and Shaw (chilling) are excellent, and they are amply supported by their colleagues and cohorts. Not all of the extended cast are equally effective – the mayor in particular is treated as a figure of fun and quickly forgotten about – but in general there’s an organic and natural feel to the story, with a wonderfully brash and authentic New York quality to the performances (including those of the hostages, none of whom are particularly developed but who represent the diversity of New York’s population).
Because it’s presented so briskly, it’s that much easier to get swept along with the story as the minutes tick down and the money is counted, then driven at high speed through Manhattan. In truth, the climax is not as effective as it might be, as Garber joins Inspector Daniels (Julius Harris) to chase the robbers overground whilst they squabble amongst themselves (and the train speeds along with the help of obviously sped-up film). Also, the ‘what happened to Green’ coda makes for a strangely low-key ending, although the very satisfying pay-off sends you away with a smile.
I’ve tried not to mention Tony Scott’s stony-faced remake as it quite obviously has nothing to do with the making of this film. It may well be the case that I need to revisit my review of that film and put all this there, but the points of difference are obvious and nearly all of them are in the original’s favour. Scott (or scriptwriter Brian Helgeland) reworks the story to suit the casting of two major stars, combining Correll and Garber into a single personality and loading him with a redundant corruption backstory, whilst Travolta is the whole gang of bad guys rolled into one sweary madman. Denzel Washington’s Garber gets himself into the action in a much more direct way, which works according to the demands of the modern action film, but it comes at the cost of personality, atmosphere and audience involvement. In this film, you have a real sense of the city and feel for the hostages, for Garber, even a little for Green: in the remake, there’s only room for the egos of the two stars – and you don’t really care much for either of them.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three contains pretty much everything you could ask of a heist movie, which explains why so many films (not least Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs) have copied it, though rarely with the same success as the original. It’s not perfect, with a slightly uneven tone and elements that date it – even allowing for its underground location, the film looks murky, and it’s really not nice to call people ‘monkeys’ – but it’s skillfully written, acted and put together, without a single editing trick in sight. I’d take this Pelham over Scott’s version any day.