The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

by Glenn Erickson Jul 02, 2016

A special edition of this confirmed ’70s crowd pleaser?  I’m there. Robert Shaw has big plans to hijack a New York subway car, and subway cop Walter Matthau is determined to stop him.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
42nd Anniversary Special Edition

KL Studio Classics
1974 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 104 min. / Street Date July 5, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman, James Broderick, Dick O’Neill, Lee Wallace, Tom Pedi, Jerry Stiller, Rudy Bond, Kenneth McMillan, Doris Roberts, Julius Harris.
Owen Roizman
Original Music David Shire
Written by Peter Stone from the novel by John Godey
Produced by Gabriel Katzka, Edgar J. Sherick
Directed by Joseph Sargent

I reviewed an MGM-Fox Blu-ray of United Artists’ The Taking of Pelham One Two Three back in late 2011, and I can’t think of a better title for a 42nd Anniversary Special Edition.  I have to say that I’ve never heard of anniversary editions that aren’t on even decades or half-decades, but any extras for this favorite title is good news.

I got dragged to a screening of this show in 1974, and as soon as I got back I started searching for the book. When it comes to crime in the Big Apple, Joseph Sargent and Peter Stone’s gritty ’70s cop movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three has the best of everything. An odd ensemble of killers and crooks hijacks a subway car, causing Manhattan to erupt in a maelstrom of confusion, from the Mayor’s mansion to a series of grimy underground transit monitoring stations. Dogged Transit Cop Walter Matthau tries to solve the crime and save human lives, but New York throws one obstacle after another into his path: bureaucratic red tape, traffic gridlock and mayoral politics. What proves to be Matthau’s greatest hurdle is the essence of the New Yorkers themselves: almost to a man they’re contentious, opinionated, and hot-tempered. Men with machine guns aren’t enough to keep irate subway riders or mad-as-hell schedulers from saying exactly what’s on their minds. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three isn’t as much about a crime as it is a portrait of a profane, beloved city.

Four heavily-armed men using the code names Blue, Green, Grey and Brown (Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo & Earl Hindman) seize a subway car loaded with cross-town passengers. They uncouple it from the rest of the train and demand that the city fork over one million dollars in just one hour, or the leader Mr. Blue will start executing hostages. Mr. Grey, an ex-Mafia psychopath, blasts down a railroad employee (Tom Pedi) who insists on approaching the stolen train car. Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), a subway motorman fired for corruption, prepares the cab for a quick getaway. Up top, Transit Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) must keep a dialogue going with the hijackers and urge the Mayor (Lee Wallace) to expedite a cash ransom across town. Garber must also cope with visitors from the Japanese subway system and the stubborn interference of a colleague, subway routing master Correll (Dick O’Neill). As the deadline looms closer the NYPD races through traffic to deliver the payoff money, while Garber begs the hijackers for more time. Little thought has been given to what should be a very obvious question: just how are the robbers going to escape with their loot?

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a winner from the very first note of David Shire’s jazzy theme music. Handed an unbreakable scenario by author John Godey, ace screenwriter Peter Stone is able to stress a wide spectrum of extreme reactions to the pressure of a terror extortion plot unwinding beneath the streets of the city. Until the emergency is established, Lt. Garber’s own office mates are a band of wisecracking cynics unimpressed by anything, including their bosses. Down in the bowels of the switching stations, old New York is represented by the extreme “character” types Robert Weil and Tom Pedi, who conduct all business at the level of shouting. Weil later played the mail room clerk in The Hudsucker Proxy, the one who keeps shouting at Tim Robbins that if he commits any infraction of company rules, “They dock you!” Tom Pedi goes back to the days of hardcore film noir, with strong parts in The Naked City and especially Criss Cross, where his reaction to good news was always a heavily-accented “That’s the ticket! That’s the ticket!

Saddled with a case of the flu, the mayor is a whining, profane bundle of nerves, and must be goaded and insulted into doing his duty by his patient wife (Doris Roberts) and his nervy assistant (Tony Roberts). The mayor needs to appear in public to show concern for the seventeen hostages, but he’s convinced that people will boo him: “They always do!” The bitter chief dispatcher Correll works himself into a pissy mood that makes Archie Bunker look benign by comparison. Garber loses his patience when Correll’s outbursts become an obstruction, and a fistfight almost breaks out.

Meanwhile, down in the subway the tension is off the chart. The tunnels are lined with snipers waiting for a go-ahead signal; they’re so keyed up they might accidentally shoot each other. The thief-in-command Mr. Blue has worries of his own. Mr. Grey is revealing himself to be an itchy-fingered loose cannon, shooting first and grinning with pride afterwards. The nervous Mr. Green can’t keep his mouth shut, and tells the captive conductor and motorman too much about the mission. Despite the gun barrels pointed at their noses, the cross-section of hostages behaves like genuine New Yorkers, talking back to their captors and flying into multi-lingual panic. Mr. Blue’s secret escape plan sends them on a high-speed wild ride through the subway system that scares the pants off everybody. One hostage has a good idea of how to absorb the tension — she folds herself into a lotus position to meditate: “Ommmmm!”

And there’s one more loose wrench in the machinery: Lt. Garber knows that one of the hijacked hostages is really an undercover Transit Cop … armed with only a small pistol, and waiting for an opportunity to act. It may even be a woman.

Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw are solid foes, while Martin Balsam is great as a sniveling thief and Hector Elizondo appropriately reptilian as the sneering, trigger-happy Mr. Grey. This movie is a real valentine to the anti-melting pot of Manhattan at a certain time in history, when the city’s fortunes were at low ebb and the credo on the streets was Every New Yorker for Himself.

There’s no downside to this original version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three; the picture is a delight on all levels, from Walter Matthau’s gum-chewing effort to keep a lid on his nerves to the wonderfully profane colorful responses of 1001 New Yorkers. Irate citizens heckle the Mayor, while a police commander (Julius Harris) gets to snap out old-fashioned cop-show dialogue: “Get this thing turned around and burn rubber!” Although several innocents are wiped out, the movie is not particularly bloodthirsty. The pacing is taut and the humor just keeps coming. All in all, this is an unappreciated modern classic.


KL Studio Classics (Kino’s) 42nd Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three looks great, just as good as the MGM disc from five years ago. Cameraman Owen Roizman became a “New York look” specialist after The French Connection. Film stock in 1974 was nowhere near as sensitive as it is today. For ads referencing Pelham in American Cinematographer, Deluxe Lab claimed that pre-flashing film was a safe way to get decent images in very dark filming situations. The procedure yielded a low-contrast image with heavy granularity. Frankly, studios and labs took advantage of the fact that “gritty” crime movies around this time didn’t have to look good — the release print I saw for Pelham looked awful. I played the old 1992 MGM laserdisc until it fell apart like an onion, and it was no beauty either. On Blu the show is delight, with many more colors than gritty blue and green. The soundtrack for David Shire’s catchy jazz theme is particularly sharp.

The special edition extras begin with an audio commentary by Pat Healy and Jim Healy. A trio of well-chosen interviews follow with an interview piece with actor Hector Elizondo, which is a real treat. Elizondo comes off as a sweetheart of a guy, telling us of his career situation, his worship of director Joseph Sargent, and the seriousness with which he took on the role of the machine-gun toting Mr. Grey. Elizondo’s anecdotes about the cast, including Walter Matthau, hold our attention well. The other two reviews are more limited in scope. David Shire discusses his score in enough detail to keep soundtrack fans happy. Editor Gerald Greenberg gets into some of the problems he had putting the final show into shape. A still and ad art montage and a trailer are included, as is the ‘Trailers from Hell’ entry for the show, with commentary by director Josh Olson.

Nobody considered these cop shows to be Oscar material, even though The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is superior to most movies from 1974. I have a theory that the film’s exploitative poster kept some viewers away — the cartoonish mess of gun barrels and screaming victims would look better advertising a movie called The Manhattan Machine Gun Massacre: “We are going to kill one passenger a minute until New York City pays us one million dollars.”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three Special Edition
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Pat Healy and Jim Healy; interviews with Hector Elizondo, David Shire and Gerald Greenberg.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 29, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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