Monday, June 08, 2009

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974) - Joseph Sargent


General disgust at the idea of the upcoming Tony Scott remake of this classic '70s New York action film as well as a long stretch having passed since re-watching the original put this movie squarely on my weekend radar. I could go on and on for pages (or, in blog terms, one long-ass page scroll) as to the reasons why a Scott remake of Pelham is particularly offensive to me, and perhaps I will do so at length in some future post. But I digress...

What's wonderful about the original (and what no re-imagining will ever surpass or probably even comprehend) is just how fantastically B-Q-E blasé and Gracie Mansion jaded everyone in this movie is. "Who the hell would want to hi-jack a subway train?" is the refrain that's constantly repeated throughout the film from Walter Matthau's grumpy Transit Authority lieutenant to the NYC mayor to the subway passengers themselves (one rider even sleeps through the entire hi-jacking). Yet they reluctantly go about their duty because, hey, that's what they're supposed to do. And it doesn't hurt that these lines are delivered by some of the best NYC character actors of their generation -- Jerry Stiller, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Dick O'Neill, Lee Wallace, Julius Harris to name a few.

This is a movie where the bad guy (cold-blooded crossword-puzzle aficionado Robert Shaw) just wants his ransom money and has no interest in human life or telling us any long, involved story about how he was raped by a bull mastiff as a child. There is some minor mention of his mercenary past, but even that, much like the hi-jackers' names (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, etc. -- sound familiar?), doesn't tell us much. And then when he realizes the plan's not going to come together as expected, he has the good graces not to involve Matthau or the audience in some lengthy outro speech or a weak attempt at gun grappling in the subway tunnel. He simply touches his toe to the third rail and -- ZAP! -- that is that. Unlike the MTA at times, the original Pelham is a well-oiled, perfectly paced action storytelling machine.

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