Walter Matthau Negotiates Over The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE 2It’s a testament to 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three that it has been remade twice in the 29 years since: first in 1998 as a made-for-TV movie with Edward James Olmos, then with Denzel Washington and John Travolta as a big-budget action picture in 2009. However, the decision to produce those remakes remains questionable, because how do you improve on a practically perfect urban suspense film? 

The premise is a simple one: Four men hijack a New York City subway train and hold its passengers and the conductor for ransom, demanding that $1 million be delivered within an hour. One passenger will be executed for every minute that the money is late. 

Of course, Pelham’s success has nothing to do with its familiar “hostage situation” plot and everything to do with its cast, screenplay and setting. At a time when movie audiences were used to young, intense cops like Al Pacino’s Serpico, Walter Matthau’s Pelham hero must have been quite a shock. As Lieutenant Garber of the New York Transit Authority Police, Matthau wears a light brown jacket to cover his red-yellow-green plaid shirt and yellow tie. He spends most of the film in the transit’s office (I love the little touches like the Bayer aspirin on his desk). And no one would ever call Garber intense. In fact, his coolness and ability to make quick decisions is his greatest attribute.

TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE 4In contrast, Robert Shaw displays a muted, ruthless intensity as the leader of the hijackers. When he flatly states he will kill the passengers if required, his tone leaves no doubt. One of my favorite parts of the film is how it subtly compares Shaw’s Mr. Blue with Lt. Garber. While Garber struggles to get decisions on his end, Mr. Blue has to cope with a gang of misfits, including the reluctant Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) and the psychotic Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo). Garber and Blue may have nothing in common…except that they are the decision-makers trying to control the situation, each from his own end.  

Peter Stone earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, which was adapted from John Godey’s 1973 novel. To offset the film’s violence, Stone brilliantly incorporates humor, derived from the most unlikely sources (e.g., the city’s indecisive mayor, a tour of the Transit Authority by Japanese businessmen). The mayor, played as a whiny politician by Lee Wallace, tries to use a case of flu as an excuse for not handling the situation. As the deputy mayor pressures him to make any decision about the 18 hostages, the mayor turns to his wife (nicely played by Doris Roberts) for advice: 

Mayor’s Wife: I know a million dollars sounds like a lot of money. But just think what you’ll get in return. 

Mayor: What? 

Mayor’s wife: Eighteen sure votes. 

Still, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a suspense film, and it certainly delivers in that department. Its most stunning sequences are a runaway subway and a race against time through the crowded streets of New York to deliver the ransom money. Director Joseph Sargent takes advantage of the on-location filming, which gives the film an appropriately gritty look. In 2005, National Public Radio’s “resident film music buff” Andy Trudeau listed David Shire’s pulsating, jazzy score as one of his all-time top ten. 

And, as you might have suspected, writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In fact, he paid homage to it in Reservoir Dogs by having the gang members refers to themselves as colors–just as Shaw’s gang does in Pelham.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café, on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!