The Taking of Pelham 123

1974. Directed by someone named Joseph Sargent.

The direction isn’t bad at all, but Mr. Sargent, who is still among the living, worked mostly in TV afterward. Wonder why.

THE SHOT: Robert Shaw et alia hijack a subway train.  They want one MILLION dollars from a cash-strapped New York to let it go.  They have an INGENIOUS plan for escape.  Or at least I think they do, it’s never explained exactly how it works.

TONE: Pure gritty 70s realism.  Almost Dog Day Afternoon in its level of verisimilitude.  Complex action and chase scenes in real New York locations, using real New York people and, most impressively, real New York subway stations.  A great cast mostly disappears into their roles, which are purely functional.  Some of my favorite character actors, including Kenneth McMillan, Julius Harris, Martin Balsam, Jerry Stiler and James Broderick.  Iron-Eyes Cody makes an appearance in a subway car ad, and Tony Roberts showboats as a pushy mayoral aide.  Robert Weil looks exactly the same in this movie as he does in The Hudsucker Proxy, almost 20 years later.  Walther Matthau is the harried, efficient but unimpressed guy trying to stop the crime.

The use of “New York flavor,” involving bickering ethnics, hassled bueraucrats and traffic snarls is well-used.  The makers of Die Hard With A Vengeance studied this movie to get the same flavor.  Everybody’s got a story, everybody’s got a personal observation.  Doesn’t matter how tense the situation is or how tight time is, everyone is going to bicker about tiny little things.  It works.

Didn’t realize until now that the whole “criminals calling each other by colors” Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, etc, comes from here and not Reservoir Dogs.  Live and learn.

SMALL CONTRIVANCES: In a narrative this tight, anything contrived sticks out a mile.  In this case, Martin Balsam has a bad cold.  Turns out to be a major plot point.  Likewise, one of the subway passengers, we learn, is an undercover cop. 

In the biggest cliche of all, one of the hijackers is a trigger-happy psycho.  In an inversion of the cliche, he’s played by Gavin McLeod.

DOES CRIME PAY?  Heavens no.
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7 Responses to “The Taking of Pelham 123”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Unos, Dos, Tres…

    Wasn’t this called The Taking of Pelham One Two Three? Or did I miss something?

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Unos, Dos, Tres…

      Having picked that nit, the blog is great, by the way – I check it every day now. Somehow your observations make for much more interesting reading than standard journalistic film criticism.

  2. craigjclark says:

    Ah, Pelham — one of my favorite films of all time. This showed up on cable a lot when I was younger and it made an early impression on me. One of my favorite things about it is the way Walter Matthau’s character is introduced — because his day has to start out bad before it can get worse.

  3. urbaniak says:

    In the biggest cliche of all, one of the hijackers is a trigger-happy psycho. In an inversion of the cliche, he’s played by Gavin McLeod.

    Todd is joking of course but how creepy would it have been if Hector Elizondo’s character really had been played by Gavin Macleod? A missed opportunity by Joseph Sargent.

    • Todd says:

      Yes. A joke. How sharp of you to catch it. That joke, I mean.

      Hey, the guy wears glasses and a moustache through the whole movie.

  4. greyaenigma says:

    I think Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the movie that’s been on my to re-watch list the longest. I vaguely remember liking even when I watched it on TV as a kid way back when I was a kid.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on this. Thoroughly enjoyed it.