Published on December 29th, 2017 | by Clint Davis
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three 
Summary: As taut a crime thriller as you'll ever see. Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw are perfect as two men on opposite sides of a New York subway train hijacking. Few films embody their setting so perfectly.
R | 104 min.
Director: Joseph Sargent
Screenplay: Peter Stone (based on the novel by Morton Freedgood)
Starring: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam
Distribution: United Artists
New York City has been the setting of countless movies, going all the way back to 1901. But I don’t know if any film has embodied the city’s spirit as well as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Based on a 1973 novel, which was altered in many small ways for this movie adaptation, Pelham boasts an outstanding ensemble cast made up almost completely of New York natives and packs enough abrasive attitude to fill the Hudson.
The plot follows a group of costumed hijackers, led by Robert Shaw, who hijack a New York subway train and demand $1 million within a strict time limit or they’ll begin killing a single hostage for every minute the ransom is late. The hijackers are in radio contact with Transit Authority police Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), who tries to keep them placated while he and other TA and NYPD cops try to figure out how to stop the scheme. And in case you’re wondering, that terribly wordy title comes from how the dispatchers would identify the train that was taken; it departed from the Pelham Bay Park station at 1:23 p.m., or “one two three.”
A caper that pits ruthless bad guys against a gruff veteran cop in a race against the clock? It’s not exactly anything you haven’t seen before but you’ve probably not seen it done with this much finesse. The genius thing about Pelham is the hook it sets in your mouth as soon as the hijacking gets started. You just can’t seem to figure out what their plan is.
Who would want to steal a subway train? And how do they plan on getting away with the money if they’re trapped underground? These questions gnaw at every investigator in the film and it quickly becomes clear that these are smart criminals who’ve already thought of every possible angle. When the full plan is finally revealed to the audience, it makes for a satisfying and thrilling climax that isn’t cheapened by contrivances. In the end, it all makes sense and it all feels earned, thanks to Peter Stone’s excellent script.
There’s an elegance in this movie that’s uncommon in heist pictures and offset by the rough nature of its characters. The cops in Pelham are as blue collar as it gets. There’s no flashy, bad-boy detective who plays by his own rules and there’s no cowboy who single-handedly takes on the bad guys himself to save the day. The officers and transit workers in this film look tired — as you’d expect in the middle of a hellish day —and everyone just wants to get this whole thing over with. Nobody, including the hijackers, looks like they’re enjoying this situation. They’re essentially all just doing their jobs and that’s one thing that makes the movie work so well.
Director Joseph Sargent keeps such a steady hand on the controls during the entire film. There’s no overacting and there’s no melodrama even though the entire story is a life-and-death situation. Sargent and his cast show tremendous restraint and it’s what makes Pelham feel both more tense and more realistic than other terrorism pictures.
As Garber, Matthau is the beating heart of this movie that can often be as steely as the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s truly a great hero for this kind of story, with the confidence of John McClane but absolutely none of the bravado. When we first meet Garber, he’s sleeping while on duty, slumped over in an ugly Transit Authority office where there are no windows to be found. He appears to be a half-assing schlub who doesn’t bring much to the table — but from the moment the call comes from a dispatcher telling him a train has been hijacked, Garber is a dogged investigator.
This is the type of role Matthau was born to play because his genius as an actor lived in how effortless he made the craft appear. Matthau made every character he played seem like a guy you’d like to get to know. He was a master at embodying the average. And he made acting look about as easy as anyone ever has. When movie buffs complain that “They don’t make ’em like they did in the ’70s,” they are referring to everyman actors like Matthau playing the lead in blockbuster movies like this.
If he were still alive when the 2009 Tony Scott remake was produced, Matthau would be lucky if he could get cast as one of the old guys in the background inside the Transit Authority dispatch center. In that version, the role of Garber was played by Denzel Washington, a man who was once named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” So it goes…
But not all the “old-school” aspects of Pelham hold up when you watch it today. There is a ton of sexism peppered throughout the dialogue which, while lending to the realism of its time and setting, did make me cringe slightly. “This post has only been open to women for two weeks and already we’re in the toilet,” one character, who is obviously played as a backward dinosaur, says early in the film in reference to the woman working next to him. “If I gotta watch my language because they let a few goddamn broads in, I’m gonna quit!” another, more likable character played by Jerry Stiller, says later.
I was especially frustrated by one part of the plot that could have helped the film overcome all previous anti-female sentiment. About halfway through the picture, it’s revealed that a plainclothes police officer is among the hostages being held on the train. Nobody has any clue who the hidden officer is and when Garber suggests it could be a woman, another character shoots back, “Goddamn woman cops — what the hell good are they? She probably can’t find her gun in her goddamn purse!” Garber waves him off but when it’s later revealed that the plainclothes officer is, indeed, a man, it almost made that sexist comment sound justified.
Even the uncomfortable bits add to Pelham’s grittiness and documentary-style realism. Unlike many movies, not every line of dialogue serves a great purpose in the overall plot or reveals something essential about the character who utters it — sometimes people are just saying stuff, as we do in real life. This type of screenwriting is rare and makes the film feel like such a slice of urban life.
“I always wanted to do this. Look — we’re scaring the shit out of everybody!” an unnamed beat cop who’s tasked with driving the ransom money at high speed through New York’s streets. “Yeah, including me!” his partner replies, looking green in the gills. It’s a quick scene that serves absolutely no purpose other than to break up the action, give the audience a little laugh and show us that this is no ordinary day for anyone involved in this story.
Stone’s script is airtight. The scenes are short and the pacing is breakneck. Nearly every scene ends after just a few lines of dialogue and Sargent proves that you don’t need long takes to build tension. The constant back and forth, from the train to the investigators, keeps Pelham chugging. The only times I felt the movie sagged were during scenes set inside the home of the mayor, played by Lee Wallace.
This character is played as a total spineless dope, which makes sense given the political climate of New York City in the mid-’70s, but his scenes dull the film’s edge. Perhaps it’s the brightly lit, comfortable interiors of his home but whenever we cut away to those sets, it feels like we’re watching a different movie. With that said, it is hilarious when the police officers are able to tell the mayor has arrived at the hijacking scene simply by hearing the boos of the crowd on a nearby sidewalk.
Pelham really soars in its tit for tat between Garber and the hijackers. The villains are some of the most compelling I’ve ever seen in this type of story. Each of them is identified only by a color-coded nickname, a tactic that would be lifted by Quentin Tarantino in 1992’s brilliant Reservoir Dogs. Mr. Blue, played with chilly stoicism by Shaw, avoids any trace of the grandstanding that is often par for this kind of evil mastermind. He treats the entire hijacking as what he views it: a simple business transaction. He just wants to get paid and to move on with his life. Nobody has to get hurt. Shaw is electric in this role, his performance only slightly robbed by the distracting mustache he wears as a disguise. The presence of an English actor among this ensemble of New York natives immediately separates him from the crowd and gives him a magnetism that no other characters possess.
Blue is joined by three others, including Mr. Green — played brilliantly by Oscar winner Martin Balsam — a former subway driver who holds a grudge after being fired and clearly feels he’s in over his head once the plot gets rolling. Balsam fills this character with inner turmoil and dread that’s clear from his uptight body language and lack of confidence. Then there’s also Mr. Grey, played by Hector Elizondo, who is the group’s resident psychopath (every gang needs one!). Grey is the only one who seems to be as interested in being violent as he is in getting paid. You can practically hear a pin drop when he uses the N-word and busts a black Vietnam veteran in the mouth with his gun for not following orders.
Any review of Pelham would be remiss without attention to David Shire’s original score. Put simply, this movie has one of the most exciting scores ever put to film. It’s at once vintage and totally timeless. Shire fills the soundtrack with bass, drums and woodwinds that chug along like a runaway freighter. In the decade following this film’s release, you’d hear countless police flicks with scores that sound like Pelham’s. It’s the kind of music that immediately brings to mind images of hard-boiled detectives chasing shadowy figures through alleys.
In addition to Pelham, Stone wrote a handful of stage dramas and screenplays, the latter of which were often in the thriller genre. His script for 1963’s Charade helped launch his career (a movie I also found problems with in its presentation of women). Sargent’s other movies weren’t as critically acclaimed as this one. Among those he directed are 1987’s Razzie nominee Jaws: The Revenge and the 1973 Burt Reynolds vehicle (literally) White Lightning. He had more critical success in television, where his work won him four Emmy awards. It seems The Taking of Pelham One Two Three represents a high-water mark for each of them.
When the ending comes, we feel like we’ve been through a hell of an ordeal with these characters. We’ve seen Garber go from a guy sleeping on the job to an intense investigator who grabs a meat-headed colleague by the collar and shouts, “Listen to me, you dumb son of bitch…” The ultimate fate of Mr. Blue is one of the more memorable for a villain that I can recall. The ending scene, a freeze-frame of Matthau’s face, is an all-time classic closing shot that follows a brilliant final line of dialogue, even if you can see it coming a mile away.
Don’t waste your time with remakes. Track down a copy of this 1974 original and you’ll have a hell of a time taking the ride. Long live Walter Matthau.