Based on John Godey’s novel, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is very much a product of its times, reflecting New York in the 1970s as a gritty, somewhat terrifying place; not dissimilar to other urban paranoia films, such as The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is driven by a rather simple, but highly effective plot. A group of armed men take a New York subway train hostage and demand that the city pay $1 million in ransom within one hour, or else they will begin killing the passengers for every minute they’re late.
Director Joseph Sargent (White Lightning, MacArthur) does an excellent job of gradually building up the tension. The opening scene depicts four men entering the IRT subway at different stations. All attired in checked overcoats and hats, and they all sport glasses and moustaches. The men are: Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman). With just a few words, and precise movements, they seize control of a No. 6 train designated as “Pelham One Two Three”, because of its point and time of departure (Pelham Bay Park at 1:23 p.m.).
At MTA headquarters, veteran detective Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) is busy giving a tour of the facilities to a group of visiting Japanese dignitaries. When the call comes in about a hijacked train, no one can believe it. There are only so many ways to escape from an underground tunnel. The pressure is on to assemble $1 million, or watch people die.
There are some significant obstacles as the money makes its way to Downtown Manhattan, the hostage takers try to orchestrate their escape and Garber and his associates try to catch them before it’s too late. The central relationship between Shaw’s cold-eyed criminal and Matthau’s wisecracking cop is conducted via radio, though they meet briefly toward the end.
The passengers represent a multi-racial group, a cross-section of New York demographics, among them a black pimp, a wise old man, a mother with two kids, though all remain narrowly defined.
The gang is defined by types. The calculating Mr. Blue, a former mercenary, the discredited former subway driver, Mr. Green, is in over his head, Mr. Brown is a bit bland as his name suggests, but Mr. Grey, is a hothead who shoots people before considering the consequences. While there are a couple of murders, some in cold blood, there’s no real gore on screen. Somewhat surprisingly, humor comes through regularly. The Mayor (Lee Wallace), a nebbish if there was one, spends much of the film in bed sick with the flu. He’s in pain, and whines like a child (at one point gets a shot in his butt). He doesn’t come across as a man in charge.
A wonderful example of how to construct an engaging thriller, which relies on plot rather than special effects, is Sargent’s best film. Largely known for his television work, Sargent handles the story expertly. Walter Matthau, who plays the level headed and sardonic Garber looks wonderfully ordinary and handles the hostage situation in a believable way. As Blue, Robert Shaw shows a great talent for playing tough villains. Shaw’s character is so cool that he can concentrate on a crossword puzzle while negotiating with the authorities in the midst of the crisis. The perennially underrated Martin Balsam is also good, particularly in the final scene which leads to the films abrupt, but fitting ending.
Quentin Tarantino has claimed that The Taking of Pelham One Two Three served as one of the inspirations for his 1991 debut, Reservoir Dogs, specifically the color-coded criminal characters and use of a heist plot that goes horribly awry. If you’ve only seen the 2009 remake of Pelham—which is generally regarded as forgettable—don’t hesitate to take a look at the 1974 thriller; truly an exciting ride.
Presented in the films Panavision theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 this 1080p transfer is rather good. Though there is some occasional softness throughout, much of the image is sharp. There is no aliasing to be found, and only a few specks are noticeable. Color is well saturated, without interfering with the films overall gritty feel. Flesh tones are realistic, but black levels, the transfer’s weakest element, are mediocre.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix does an excellent job of combining the well recorded dialogue, the sound effects, and David Shire’s dynamic score into a solid article. There are no age-related artifacts to distract from the audio track. The track is typical of films of that era.
English SDH and French subtitles are available.
There are no real special features here:
As with other recent MGM discs, Fox has mastered this title with no main menu but with BD-Java, omitting the ability to set bookmarks; BDJ prevents the user from stopping playback and starting from the same position, and bookmarking is the only workaround.
- Trailer (HD; 2:30): An effective trailer that properly conveys the flavor of the film.