The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) Movie Review
There certainly aren't any Urban Outfitters to be seen in 1970s Manhattan, though a train ride on the 6 is still a life-and-death proposition. That becomes a bit more literal for the dozen or so that are held hostage on a single car by a pack of hijackers who refer to themselves by color; a gimmick Tarantino would cop 20 years later in Reservoir Dogs. The leader is a coiled ex-soldier-of-fortune who goes by Mr. Blue (the brilliant Robert Shaw, a year before Jaws) with Green (Martin Balsam), Grey (Hector Elizondo), and Brown (Earl Hindman) under him. His foil, a metro cop named Zach Garber, is oddly played by Walter Matthau.
Fastened to David Shire's NYPD Blue-meets-Coltrane score, the film is time-stamped not only by its surroundings but by its good-humored tone. Unlike its Tony Scott-helmed, frantic, and shallow reimagining, the point of fixation is not fear of death but rather use of time. "Give them an hour and they'll take an hour; give them two hours and they'll take two hours," Mr. Blue says, and Sargent isn't scared to show how much can really be done in one hour of filmmaking when you're devoted to the story.
Pelham has two functions that it facilitates extraordinarily well. The first has to do with the interweaving of procedures and routines. The initial sequences following the hijacking are a menagerie of official and personal responses, orchestrated by Sargent and the great cinematographer Owen Roizman with precision and the necessary New York chip on the shoulder; the best concerns a supervisor and lifelong New Yorker threatening to "nail their pecker to the wall." Unlike the current brand of thrillers, not to mention the remake, the original Pelham is all business, and it never stoops to manipulate the characters into personal tirades of melodrama. Encompassing in view and pervasive in its urgency, the film's trajectory is dead-set on cause and effect, time and patience.
The second function concerns history, and very few films in memory have concentrated the mood and sheer lunatic pride of the New York conscience as thoroughly as Pelham. The highlights: a unified booing of the Kochian mayor (Lee Wallace), a car crash at a pre-gentrified Astor Place, the dialect which punctuates every sentence with at least three curse words, and, of course, the transit system in its pre-digital, highly criminal heyday. Perhaps it's just a mild case of hometown pride but authenticity counts, and Pelham gets the street-level exigency of New York so right, you might just catch a whiff of that all-too-familiar mix of sewer and roasted nuts.
Aka The Taking of Pelham 123, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.