Movie review: ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’

It’s nice when you can compare two films from different generations and it’s even better when both are good films. In the case of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (the 2009 remake title was “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”) the original is better: it’s a little bit tighter and its drama is better, as is the ending. It also doesn’t have the saturation f-bombing of audiences. Still, the sequel’s good but you should make sure to catch the original (forget about the TV remake in between).

‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’
(1974; 104 minutes; rated R; directed by Joseph Sargent and starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam)

HIJACK A SUBWAY TRAIN? YES!

If you want to see the difference between a current R-rating to one in the 1970s, check out the original “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” and compare it to the remake from 2009. Audiences were pelted with f-bombs in the remake and original goes to show how much a lot less cursing can be just as (or even more) effective in drama.

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In any case, “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” from 1974 is a tight thriller that slowly builds suspense and where the action is secondary to the drama and acting. It has excellent cinematography (for being in a tunnel) and the director handles its large cast with aplomb.

In the movie a group of men (all using colors for names; Quentin Tarantino would apparently use it as inspiration for names in his cult classic “Reservoir Dogs”) hijack a subway car and demand a $1 million ransom. Negotiations with police ratchet up the tension and the whole thing revolves around how they expect to get away with the hijacking.

The movie ends after negotiation, investigation and just pure luck (and a bunch of smarts) brings the whole matter to a close. The name of the film is taking from the naming of New York subway trains — Pelham 1 2 3 is the station (Pelham) and time (1:23 p.m.).

Walter Matthau plays “Lt. Zachary Garber,” who’s the cop in charge. He’s initially dealing with a visiting group of dignitaries from Japan (he believes they can’t understand English so he constantly harangues them; of course, they can speak the language) but soon finds himself directing the moves against the hijackers. Matthau shows why he is an Oscar winner (“The Fortune Cookie”) and nominated for two others. He’s really convincing as the cop with a problem and projects the leadership necessary in the crisis. He has also been in “First Monday in October” and very funny in “California Suite” (click here for my review).

Robert Shaw, who would captain the “Orca” in “Jaws” the year after “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” plays “Bernard Ryder” (Mr. Blue), who is the leader of the hijackers, and does so with cold efficiency and deliberate, motivated action. Shaw shows his versatility here by not showing emotion such as he would in “Jaws.” He was also in “Black Sunday” (click here for my review) and “The Battle of the Bulge” (click here for my review).

Hector Elizondo certainly isn’t the same here as in his roles in “Pretty Woman,” “The Princess Diaries” and “Necessary Roughness” (click here for my review). Elizondo plays “Giuseppe Benvenuto” (Mr. Grey) and is a cold-blooded killer who enjoys the act. Elizondo is smooth in a role where an actor would have destroyed the character unless he did it exactly as Elizondo pulled it off. Elizondo was also in “Runaway Bride” and “Exit to Eden.”

The other two members of the gang are:

  • Martin Balsam as “Harold Longman” (Mr. Green), who is a former subway motorman and it’s his knowledge that allows the group to hijack and control the subway train. Balsam does his usual professional job here and it’s his case of the flu that ultimately causes his downfall. Balsam has also been in “12 Angry Men” and was superb in “The Bedford Incident” (click here for my review).
  • Earl Hindman as “George Steever” (Mr. Brown). Hindman, best remembered for his role as “Wilson Wilson” on TV’s “Home Improvement,” plays the final member of the gang and his role is small compared to the others. It’s difficult to get a feel for his work once you realize that it’s “Wilson” with the machine gun. Hindman was also in “The Parallax View.”

On the good guys’ side is Dick O’Neill as “Frank Correll” and he is volatile, blustering and dead-set against dealing with the hijackers. It isn’t easy to bring a character up to the pitch he brings “Correll,” but he does it well and maintains it throughout the film. O’Neill has also been in “Prizzi’s Honor” and was also a semi-regular on “Home Improvement.”

Unlike his character on TV’s “Seinfeld,” Jerry Stiller as “Lt. Rico Patrone” is professional and somewhat restrained. Stiller, who like others in the supporting cast, does a good job maintaining the balance and quality of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” He has also been in “Hairspray” and the father on TV’s “The King of Queens.”

Just for your information: the updated “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” does not rank in the top 150 films in which f-bombs are dropped. The top three are “Swearnet: The Movie” (which was released on Sept. 12, 2014); next is a documentary about the word; and finally Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” From No. 1 to No. 3, here are total f-bomb counts: 935, 857 and 569. The No. 150 film is “Hoffa” with 152.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” made $16.5 million on a budget of $5 million, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Blazing Saddles” with $119.5 million, according to Wiki.

An interesting historical note: For years after the film’s release, authorities would not allow the scheduling of a Pelham train at 1:23 so as not to be a reminder of the film, which was also remade in 1998 as a TV movie.

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Doris Roberts, who was the mother on TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond,” plays “Jessie,” who is the mayor’s wife. Roberts would go on to a stellar career – and a versatile one (check out “Grandma’s Boy”) including “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
  • Steven Spielberg was considered to direct the film, but Joseph Sargent, who has many more TV credits to his directing resume, was chosen and did a good job (at least that’s my opinion).

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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