Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

So I finally got around to watching The Taking of Pelham One Two Three off my DVR recently. It's in print on DVD and Blu-ray, and is well worth watching.

Set in New York in the era just before Gerald Ford told the city to "drop dead", but not showing quite as much of what was going wrong with the city as some other movies, this one starts off juxtaposing two scenes. One is of a subway train going along its regularly scheduled route, and a trainee subway driver; the other is of the NYC Transit Police operations center and how they keep the trains running. In the latter scene, Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) is giving a tour to a bunch of Japanese police, something he'd clearly rather not be doing.

For better or worse, Garber is about to get out of that unpleasant duty. Going back to that subway we saw in the opening, four men have gotten aboard. Led by Bernard Ryder (Robert Shaw), who uses the code-name "Blue", their plan is to hijack the train, which seems insane since the darn thing can only run on tracks. But obviously they've got a plan for how they're going to escape, or else they wouldn't be doing this. Blue is no dummy. He's assembled "Green" (Martin Balsam), a former subway motorman; "Grey" (Hector Elizondo) and "Brown" (Earl Hindman) will make certain the hostages don't get out of hand, shooting any of them if necessary.

After taking over the train, the hostage-takers have the train decoupled so that there's only one passenger car remaining, and release their demands. One million dollars (this is 1974 dollars, mind you) in one hour, or else they'll shoot one hostage per minute. Poor Garber doesn't have much choice other than to try to figure out what the hijackers are getting at, while negotiating the deals of the ransom.

Meanwhile, the Mayor (Lee Wallace) has been informed of what's going on, and has to figure out how to get everything to finish smoothly while he's got chaos all around him. After all, a hijacked train means you kind of have to empty out the subway stations, which will lead to all sorts of traffic problems on the streets above. But there's not much choice.

It sounds from my synopsis as though there's not much going on, and in some senses, that really is the case. That's because the writers have come up with a darn good story and don't feel the need to fill it with all sorts of extraneous information. Instead, we get a movie that pretty much starts with the action from the opening, and goes on non-stop until, well, I won't tell you precisely how it ends. But everything fits together well, and it doesn't feel as if there's a thing out of place.

It helps to have somebody like Walter Matthau giving the lead performance. The more I think about him, the more I find it amazing how he was able to switch effortless from comedies like the ones he did with Jack Lemmon to tense dramas like this. But Robert Shaw as the head of the hijackers is quite good, too. The rest of the supporting cast does a capable job, although other than the other three hijackers, none of them are particularly big characters. Not that the script needs them to be. If there's one problem, it's that the passengers are cardboard cutouts mean to show that anybody could have been stuck on the subway. But then, the story isn't about them the way it is in, say, The Incident.

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