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To The 5 Boroughs

June 4th, 2010 · 3 Comments

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In the month of June, Joe Valdez “takes over” the programming of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles with a series of double features on his favorite film themes. Joe is not a professional curator and may not even show potential as an amateur one, but comments and recommendations for future double features are welcome below.

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 poster Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 poster B

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Directed by Joseph Sargent
Screenplay by Peter Stone, based on the novel by Morton Freedgood (as John Godey)
Produced by Gabriel Katzka, Edgar J. Scherick
104 minutes

Listening to a Beastie Boys LP or watching The Taking of Pelham One Two Three will not only assist a visitor in the successful navigation of the New York subway system, but for 1 hour 44 minutes, the latter is an electrifying 1970s cops and robbers thriller that captures the magnitude of NYC as well as the mettle of many of the people you’re likely to encounter there. Based on a 1973 bestseller by Morton Freedgood — a PR hack who published several potboilers under the name “John Godey” — Hollywood came calling during a bleak time for the Big Apple, which was depressed economically and threatening to crack with crime and ethnic tension. In an effort to turn the city’s fortunes around, Mayor John Lindsey invited the film industry to use Manhattan as a back lot, but his office initially found in this script exactly the type of social distortion he was trying to clean up.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of those once in a blue moon entertainments that fires on every cylinder from start to finish, sharply adapted by Peter Stone and supremely well cast right down to walk-on roles. If anything is better than “Walter Matthau as Lt. Zachary Garber” and “Jerry Stiller as Lt. Rico Patrone”, I don’t know what is; the equivalent would be Ricky Gervais and Patton Oswalt starring in a $150 million summer action movie; in other words, unlikely. Even more so than The Fugitive, this is an E-ticket ride through a great metropolis, with accents and plot developments that feel singular to that city above any other. TV journeyman Joseph Sargent does a yeoman’s job balancing action across different locations, while the peerless camerawork by Owen Roizman and musical score by David Shire send this movie into another stratosphere.

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974

On a subway train departing Pelham Bay Park Station in the Bronx at 1:23 in the afternoon, men sporting long coats, hats and wearing fake moustaches and eyeglasses move into position. Identifying each other as Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) and armed with submachine guns, the men access the motorman’s compartment and hijack the train, using Green’s expertise as a conductor to stop in a tunnel somewhere between 28th Street and 23rd Street. At the Transit Authority command center, the wry Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) and Lt. Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller) have their boredom interrupted when Blue radios threatening to execute hostages starting in one hour unless a ransom of $1 million is delivered.

While the Mayor (Lee Wallace) dithers over how New York voters will respond to his decisions — negatively, it seems, no matter what he does — his deputy (Tony Roberts) and wife (Doris Roberts) advise that it would be wise to pay the hijackers and avoid risking another Attica. Sparring with Blue over the radio, Garber is stumped over how the meticulous ex-British Army colonel plans to escape an underground tunnel. When a sharpshooter fires off a round on accident, Blue makes good on his threats and executes one of the hostages. With the ransom cash running late, Garber thinks fast and produces a ruse to prevent Blue from shooting anyone else, including an undercover transit cop whose identity remains unknown. As Pelham 123 gets moving again and hurdles toward Manhattan, Garber hits on how the hijackers plan to escape.

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 Robert Shaw

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 Earl Hindman Mari Gorman

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 Walter Matthau

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 Jerry Stiller

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 Robert Shaw

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 Robert Shaw Martin Balsam

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 Dick O'Neill Walter Matthau

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 Earl Hindman Robert Shaw Martin Balsam Hector Elizondo

Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 Walter Matthau

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 208 users: 94% for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Based on novel · Cult favorite · Gangsters and hoodlums · Heist · Interrogation · Prostitute · Shootout · Train

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ivan // Jun 4, 2010 at 9:03 am

    The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is as close to perfection as I can imagine.

  • 2 Patricia Evans // Jun 6, 2010 at 7:39 am

    A groovy, perfectly-cast movie (Matthau in particular is a knock-out) which makes one ask “Why bother with a re-make?” like the recent one. Every time a classic is “reimagined” for today’s audience, the original becomes harder to source.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jun 6, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Ivan: No question this movie is close to perfection. It’s the first time I’ve seen any movie get 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Thanks for commenting!

    Patricia: Here’s a nifty interview with Joseph Sargent in January 2003 after a screening of Pelham at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester, New York. It’s interesting how Die Hard ripped off Pelham but came up with a new and wonderful movie, while remakes are usually a very sorry excuse for the original. If Tarantino has demonstrated anything it’s that you don’t have to remake great movies, just rip them off. Thanks for commenting!

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