Monday, September 22, 2014

The Taking of Pelham, One Two Three

It's beyond cliché to portray New Yorkers as cynical, eye contact avoiding grouches always ready with a wise retort, but sometimes there are stereotypes for good reason. Maybe not so much these days, but in less complicated, scarier times, you were likely to be greeted with some causticism if you were say, trying to navigate the NYC Subway system. It was the New York Attitude, virtually patented. I was on the receiving end many times during my visits.  Even from police officers. Maybe it was a defense mechanism, a coping skill to deal with what can sometimes be an oppressive existence in a crowded, dirty city, filled with danger and impossible costs of living.

On the other hand, you could still, as late as 1996, get a hot dog for $.50 at Grey's Papaya on 72nd and Broadway. A few years later, a sign proclaiming "We Are Polite New Yorkers!" hung in their window. I think it was a citywide campaign.

These days, New York is a far less intimidating place.  It's certainly cleaner, and the stats verify that it's safer.

Its subway system, one of the most efficient in the world, remains the fastest method to get around the boroughs. But at certain moments, it can still be very threatening. If potential danger lurks, where is the escape hatch?  I haven't seen cops with German Shepherds going car to car anymore.  So what if someone, as illogical as it may seem, attempted to hijack the train? To demand ransom for the lives of those poor shmucks caught in the rat race?

Such is the plot of 1974's crackerjack thriller THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE. A group of men with fake mustaches and trench coats wielding machine guns one day indeed take over the Pelham 123 local. The leader, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) informs dispatch that they will kill one hostage per minute if one million dollars is not delivered to them within one hour. The other men use names like Mr. Brown and Mr. Green. Remind you of any later movies? Forget the 2009 remake; I have.

Transit Authority lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) is called away from his tour group to handle the situation. He's a gruff, seen-it-all, veteran of the Metro, all-too-familiar with dealing with growly, downright bitchy cohorts in the bowels of the System. I especially enjoyed his tete-e-tetes with character actors like Jerry Stiller and James Broderick. In many ways, these exchanges are the heart of the movie. And they are among the many reasons this film should be preserved in the National Registry.

Garber begins a series of communications with Blue, generally witty,  all the while trying to figure out how the men (played by Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, et al) plan to pull this thing off. 

TAKING an exciting thriller, a small masterpiece. The pacing is just right: modulated to allow the actors to breathe and spout one great gem after another and for the tension to build and spill over during action sequences.  David Shire's score is appropriately dissonant, pulsing with life and suspense. Joseph Sargent's direction is tight,  maximizing the claustrophobia and palpable fear. The actors never overdo it, even when they're screaming at each other.  Then there's the tangibly vivid framing of early 1970s NYC life, in all its filthy glory. The location work is top notch.

From start to finish, there's that Attitude. It affects every plot point, every conversation. Corrosively funny. And that final shot, the expression on Matthau's face, is one of the most perfect you'll ever see.


Stephen Ley said...

I was fortunate enough to catch this recently on TCM. Matthau is terrific, and my oh my what a golden decade the 1970s were for American movies!

redeyespy said...

It certainly was!