My Netflix Queue is Outrageous, Ch 1: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
You know you have a problem when you’re browsing instantwatcher.com at four in the morning, and you see the message “added to queue at position 339”. That is not a typo, my Netflix queue contains three hundred and thirty-nine entries. This is on top of a rapidly growing Blu-Ray library, and frankly the backlog is getting out of hand. So in an effort to whittle it down slightly, I’m going to start watching random selections from the queue and reviewing them here at A Nerd Occurrence, good or bad. I will write a review for every single film I watch via Netflix, in an attempt to add some sort of endgame and motivation to the mix. My first selection is a film I’ve been meaning to get to for quite some time, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. To clarify for the younger crowd (thanks, Hollywood, for constantly making me do this), this is the original 1974 version, not the John Travolta/Denzel Washington remake…or the 1998 version with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio.
Based on the novel by John Godey and directed by made-for-TV-movie mainstay Joseph Sargent, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is an impressively compact crime film, with the bulk of the action taking place in two locations and more or less in real time. It stars Walter Matthau as Zachary Garber, Lieutenant of the New York City Transit Police, and Robert Shaw as “Mr. Blue”, who along with three other men has hijacked part of a subway train with 18 passengers aboard. Mr. Blue demands one million (1974) dollars from the city of New York to be delivered within one hour, or he will begin executing hostages at the alarming rate of one per minute. Lt. Garber, previously enjoying another boring day on the job, falls into the role of hostage negotiator, relaying demands from Mr. Blue and attempting to buy more time for the innocent people on board the train.
The plot is uncomplicated, especially by today’s heist film standards, and it boils down to two main questions. Will the Mayor authorize payment of the million dollar ransom? If so, how will the hijackers escape after receiving payment, considering they are in a subterranean concrete tube? The ’70’s were great like that though, this was a decade in which a half-functional mechanical shark and kitbashed models hung in front of a starfield brought us some of the greatest films of all time. Pelham relies not on the strength of its script or effects, but on its actors, and therein lies its success. Walter Matthau is absolutely perfect in this film, in a role that today would probably go to the most stoic and intense actor that the casting director could find (cough, remake, cough). What makes Lt. Garber great in this story is that he’s not some hardened super-cop, he’s just an ordinary guy trying to get through an extraordinary situation, preferably without anyone getting killed. He’s caught in the middle between a dangerous criminal and his own blowhard boss (played by the excellent Dick O’Neill: if you’ve ever watched a TV show in your life, you know his face), who’s just trying to keep the trains running on time. Matthau comes across as funny but never bumbling, and capable but never unrealistically so. This is a delicate balance achieved by few actors in few roles, and he makes it feel effortless.
On the other end of the film you’ve got Robert Shaw’s Mr. Blue, leading what was likely the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s heist crew in Reservoir Dogs nearly two decades later. Everyone has a color-based pseudonym, and they’re all dressed identically. Rather than the black suit/skinny tie combo, here it’s hats, glasses, overcoats, and fake mustaches. Also like in Reservoir Dogs, he’s got one psychopath on his team, the trigger-happy Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo). Along with Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) and Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), they pull off an incredibly smooth and mostly understated hijacking. Anybody looking to play the lead criminal in a modern film would do well to study Robert Shaw’s performance here: not a moment of panic, and not a single shouted line. Quiet, classy, and uncompromising, via an actor this skilled, comes across as far more terrifying than the typical brash bully seen far more often. Mr. Blue is in complete control of the situation front to back, and that makes for an excellent adversary on film.
If you enjoy crime films at all, or just want an example of why the 70’s were the best decade in American cinema, I wholeheartedly recommend The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. For a director who spent most of his career on TV and made-for-TV movies, Joseph Sargent managed to turn out a real gem here. This is a film that has made an indelible mark on its genre, but one that I rarely hear talked about, and that’s a shame. Go check it out! When you’re done being impressed by this one, shoot me a message and I’ll recommend a bunch of other Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau movies to you, and your life will be better for it.
Posted on August 24, 2012, in Movies, Reviews and tagged 70's movies, Crime Films, Dick O'Neill, Heist, Joseph Sargent, Netflix Instant, One Two Three, Pelham 123, Robert Shaw, Walter Matthau. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.