Friday, November 2, 2007

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

“The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974) is a crackerjack crime thriller, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. I taped it off TCM awhile ago, and now that Halloween is over, I felt like watching something that wasn’t horror related. I picked a good one.

A quartet of robbers who call themselves Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey and Mr. Brown (hello, Quentin Tarantino) hijack a New York subway train and demand one million dollars in one hour or they will kill one hostage for every minute the money is not delivered. Robert Shaw plays the head robber and Walter Matthau plays a transit cop who negotiates with them. They’re both marvelous, and Matthau is a particular joy to watch.

I enjoy these gritty 1970s crime dramas that stress realism over fanciful stunts and contrived situations. Director Joseph Sargent doesn’t allow a wasted scene and gives pros like Martin Balsam, Hector Elizando and Jerry Stiller the opportunity to do their stuff.

The film is augmented by a marvelous score by David Shire, a prime example of 1970s funk with the main title being one of the most propulsive to drive a 1970s action movie.

It may be odd for those who only know Matthau from his later day comedies that in the 1970s he made three terrific crime dramas in a row, this one and “The Laughing Policeman” and “Charley Varrick”, both from 1973.

For those looking for big explosions and farfetched action set pieces, the film will disappoint, but I was engrossed throughout and particularly enjoyed the film’s final scene - proof positive that a crime drama doesn’t need to end in an orgy of killing and destruction to be completely satisfying.

Some of the language and stereotypes would not make it today, but one aspect of the film hasn’t dated - the scenes of an unpopular Mayor bemoaning that the transit system is broke and they don’t have one million dollars to spare seem chillingly prophetic.

The film is being remade with Denzel Washington and John Travolta in respectively, the Matthau and Shaw roles. If it stays true to form to current action movies, I can only imagine how loud, stupid and irritating this version will be. I hope I’m wrong, but the only good thing I can glean from it is it may introduce people to the wonderful 1974 original.

Rating for “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”: Three-and-a-half stars.

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