Monday, October 24, 2011

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Thrillers are best served funny. Howard Hawks knew that. So did Hitchcock. And, in 1974 at least, so did Joseph Sargent. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three mixes rough comedy with edge-of-the-seat tension, the same cocktail which Jaws used to break the bank nine months later. The film a hijack drama set in the New York City subway system, and is executed so flawlessly it’s a wonder Tony Scott thought he could improve on it (for the record, he missed by miles).

Four criminals, headed by Robert Shaw, take control of subway train Pelham One Two Three. They read out a list of demands, primary among which is the ransom payment of a million dollars for the 17 hostages aboard. On the other end of the line, in charge of negotiations, is transit officer Lt Gerber (Walter Matthau). Matthau, in a rare non-comedic role, is perfect as the quick-on-his-feet Gerber. The movie doesn’t make him out to be a great human being, but he’s the right man for the job – level-headed, pragmatic, committed. Matthau’s schlumpy heroism is complemented by Shaw’s precise hijacker and Martin Balsam as his sneezing cohort. There’s also an entertaining supporting cast of growlers, scowlers and wisecrackers.

In the years since its release, the film has spawned a 1998 TV remake, as well as Scott’s version with Denzel Washington and John Travolta last year. It had a vital role in pioneering the cult of the stripped-down action movie (Tarantino was a fan, and filched the idea of criminals identifying themselves as colours for Reservoir Dogs), though its clear how big-ticket movies like Speed have borrowed from it as well. A large part of the success can be attributed to cinematographer Owen Roizman’s work; the grungy look is like New York City sans makeup. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the kind of action movie they don’t make enough of now days – plain-spoken, funny, and conveying a real sense of the place and time it is set in. Compared to the CGI-heavy behemoths clogging theatres now days, this film feels like a wiry prizefighter punching above its weight.

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