Oh look, it’s time for another bloodbath of quality cinema this week on Cinematic Century. We’ve had several years during the course of this project that led to some incredibly difficult decisions for me, but 1974 has to rank as one of most difficult of all time. I mean, what a year for movies. You can’t go wrong with a majority of these movies, and choosing which one I’d highlight was a complete struggle, one that I keep second-guessing on. But, as you can tell, I went with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, one of the finest crime films ever made, and our second Robert Shaw movie in a row. And yet, I had like ten other options that would easily win out in any other year. I mean, we got the Godfather Part Two, a film that is arguably better than the first one, which I featured just a few weeks ago. But, that film has never been able to best the first film for me, personally, even though it’s still a hell of a film, and one that really plays with your expectations of what a sequel could be. Or, apparently firing on all cylinders, we could have picked the other huge film Francis Ford Coppola released in 1974, the Conversation, one of the best paranoid thrillers of all time, during a decade where that subgenre really came into its own. We also could have talked about one of the finest neo-noirs ever made, and the uncomfortable Roman Polanski of it all, with Chinatown, which remains one of those movies that helps cement the idea that the noir can survive in any time period. Or, hey, we could have gotten really silly and talked about another one-two punch from an auteur of the medium with Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. Both are some of Brooks’ best work, and legitimately two of the funniest American films of all time, while serving as the two best spoofs ever made. But, pitting those two films against each other is an insane task, because they’re both near-perfect. We also could have really dove off the deep end and talked about Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, a rock musical that defies any sort of explanation and simply has to be seen to be believed. Any of those films could easily have won out as my favorite film of any other year. But, when all placed in the same time-span, things become infuriatingly difficult. But, at the end of the day, I had to go with my heart and talk about some subway drama.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three came into existence thanks to a whole confluence of events in the early seventies striking the interest of author Morton Freedgood. He was a self-professed “subway buff,” and became fascinated with the idea of someone taking a New York City subway hostage, and instead of that sentiment going to a very dark place, he wrote a novel. And, taking influence from the rash of airplane hijackings that were occurring in the early seventies, he developed the story that became The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and it ended up being a huge success. So, as is the natural order of things, the book was pretty quickly bought by United Artists and a filmed adaptation started being made. Unfortunately, they ran into a very unexpected situation almost immediately in the form of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who did not approve of the story in any way, and didn’t want to help the film at all. They felt like making a movie about how to hold a subway hostage may not work out well for them, which I guess is a fair fear. But, after quite a bit of back and forth between the film-makers and the MTA, they came to an understanding, and United Artists was given permission to film in an abandoned subway station and tunnel, giving the film quite a bit of authenticity. And, after a quick filming underneath New York, the film was released to the public, and widely accepted. It was a moderate hit both critically and commercially, and was generally considered a decent film. But, time has been kind to the Taking of Pelham One Two Tree, giving it a position as one of the best crime films of the seventies, a title that has quite a bit of solid competition.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three begins on an average day in New York City as four different men, all wearing hats, mustaches, and trench-coats, get aboard a subway train heading to the Pelham station. They disperse themselves throughout the train, and as it begins travelling through the labyrinthine subway tunnels of the city the men spring into action. They reveal hidden weapons and take control of the subway train, taking eighteen people and the conductor hostage. They then uncouple the lead-car from the rest of the train, causing a massive blockage as the rest of the train sits in the middle of the tunnel, keeping any other train from passing through. And, this blockage quickly gets the attention of the men and women who run the MTA, and who do their best to keep everything working as smoothly as possible. And, a train that has suddenly stopped moving, blocking up the entire system, gets them worried. This confusion eventually gets passed to Zachary Garber, a lieutenant in the New York City Transit Authority police. He and his crew gets in contact with Pelham 123, and are met with the leader of the gang, who goes by Mr. Blue, and they’re told that these 18 people and the entire subway system is being held hostage for $1 million. And, if the city doesn’t comply, they’re going to start executing hostages in one hour.
Everyone responds to this threat with bafflement at first, but after a particularly unhinged member of the gang, Mr. Gray, shoots and kills an MTA supervisor who comes to investigate the train, things get much more serious. The word of the hostage situation quickly spreads around the power structure of New York, eventually getting to the mayor and his council, who decide to go through with the exchange primarily to not upset any voters. And, while all of this is going on Garber is tasked with keeping communicated with Mr. Blue, as we gradually get to know the four men who have taken over the subway train. Blue is their leader, a shadowy figure who has worked as a mercenary in his past, Gray is a sadistic career criminal who has been kicked out of the Mafia for being too extreme, Brown doesn’t have much personality other than being the one trying to keep everything together, and Green is a former MTA conductor who was fired for a narcotics scandal and whose expertise with the train has helped them pull everything off, and whose distinctive nagging sneeze has caught Garber’s attention. The four men keep the train locked down, causing massive problems throughout the entire subway system, all while the poor hostages are forced to sit there, questioning if they’re going to survive the day. Garber continues to be baffled by this whole scheme, but does get some momentary confidence after finding out that one of the hostages is an off-duty police officer.
But, it eventually becomes a moot point, because just as the hour that Blue has given the city reaches its end, they arrive with the money. The million dollars is rushed down into the subway station, while Garber continues to stall just a bit longer to avoid any casualties, and the money is delivered to the train, before they release and execute the conductor. And, with the money in hand, Blue orders that the power is restored to the subway, and all stations in front of their car are set for them to go. But, they aren’t planning on escaping with the subway, as Garber has continuously pointed out, that would be insane. The four criminals slip off the train just before setting it to move forward at full speed, careening down the subway tunnels with the trapped hostages, gaining an incredible amount of speed. And, as the train starts to gain speed, the off-duty police officer throws himself off of the train, ready to follow the four men. They plan on escaping through a service entrance, but things start to get a little hairy. Blue and Gray have been feuding the entire time, and when Gray starts making it clear he doesn’t want a subtle getaway, Blue shoots him. Which, proves to the cop that he needs to accelerate his plan, and he shoots and kills Brown. This causes Green to panic, and he flees through their designated escape plan, while Blue goes back into the tunnel to kill the cop. However, at the same time, Garber arrives in the tunnel, having figured out that the runaway train was a decoy. He manages to confront Blue before he can kill the officer, and realizing the jig is up, Blue kills himself by stepping on the electrified third rail rather than go to prison. The hostages survive the runaway train, the police officer lives, the money is returned, and Garber begins looking for Green, the only member of the gang who managed to escape. He checks through recently fired MTA workers, and ends up recognizing Green’s distinctive sneeze while checking in on him, capturing the last of the gang.
It may seem weird to have chosen this film as my favorite of 1974, especially when you take in the sheer amount of massive movies that came out this year. There were some really huge and lauded films released in 1974, but I went with this weird, grimy little crime flick. And I stand by that. Because the Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the type of movie that grabs me from the first frame and doesn’t let go until Walter Matthau mugs to the camera after capturing Mr. Green. It’s just a hell of a movie, and one of the finer crime movies of the seventies, which is a decade that has basically become synonymous with quality crime movies. And, while it doesn’t have the scale or grandeur of some of the other big movies of 1974, it more than makes up for that with a quiet confined intensity that you just don’t see often. This is a film that easily could have fallen apart in the hands of lesser actors, because it really becomes a performance-driven film at a point. There’s not a whole lot of spectacle, it’s mainly just a bunch of sweaty men either in a subway train or a control station intensely talking to each other. But, the one-two punch of Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw keeps the film as tense as it is. They both knock it out of the park, giving the film an incredible amount of tension that interweaves with the gritty terror that the movie expertly draws the viewer in with, creating one of the most unforgettable films you’ll ever see.
When watching this movie I was struck by something, almost from the first moment, and it ended up staying with me the entire run-time. I’ve always really enjoyed this movie, but it took this viewing to realize that one of the contributing factors to that love is the fact that it makes me so nostalgic for a type of movie that just doesn’t get made that often anymore. This is an ugly movie, full of weird looking people, sweating all over the place, having dramatic conversations in grimy sets. It’s angry, it feels like the entire movie has a bad smell, and as a result it seems more like reality. Movies today are so obsessed with the idea of perfection, creating these weird perfect worlds full of idealistic people who are all good-looking, living in gorgeous locations that seem tailor-made to be in architectural magazines. But this movie? This movie doesn’t give a shit about any of that. It’s a realistic movie in the purest sense of that word. Yeah, there are plenty of movies that have plots that could potentially happen in our reality, but what makes this film realistic is that it feels like it’s happening to real people. And, I think that’s a major part of why this movie works so well. These people don’t look like movie-stars, even though they are. They look like average people, the type of people you’d actually be sitting with on the subway. And, as a result, it draws you into the world of the movie so much more efficiently, because you’re so easily able to project yourself into this, because it looks like real-life. We like to praise the 1970’s for being a bastion of “realism” in American film, and this movie has to be one of the best examples of that idea.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was written by Peter Stone, directed by Joseph Sargent, and released by United Artists, 1974.
Categories: Cinematic Century
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