The Taking Of Pelham 123 Review

Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a great ransom thriller. But more than that it's one of the quintessential New York movies, actively using the locations to wind up the tension of an already unbearably suspenseful narrative. Add to this some exceptional performances, an obscenely hilarious script and an ideal location for piling on the thrills and you have as exciting a piece of entertainment as ever emerged from Hollywood in the seventies.

The plot is familiar enough. Robert Shaw, all icy calculation and deceptive calm, plays "Mr Blue", a quiet, well spoken Englishman who leads a group of men in hijacking "Pelham One Two Three", a New York subway train (named after the time it departed and the place it will terminate). He demands a million dollars as a ransom from the Mayor to be delivered in one hour. For every minute that the money is late, he threatens to kill one of the eighteen hostages. If anyone attempts to storm the train, he will kill one hostage. The rest of his crew are "Mr Green" (Balsam), an ageing ex-driver with a bad cold; "Mr Brown" (Hindman), a non-descript small time criminal; and the deeply psychotic "Mr Grey" (Elizondo), who was thrown out of the Mafia for being too violent. Standing against this unpleasant disruption is Lieutenant Zachary Garber of the New York Transit Authority Police, played beautifully by the great Walter Matthau, who must battle not only the hijackers, but also the incompetent, influenza-stricken Mayor, the everyday chaos of the subway, the bad traffic in the city centre and such minor irritants as an impromptu visit from representatives of the Japanese Subway System. With every setback, Matthau becomes more world-weary, his sagging bloodhound jowls expressing the plight of the everyman frustrated by the pitfalls of everyday life. This is great casting. A more typical action man hero would overplay the machismo but Matthau remains rational and calm as the situation becomes ever more perilous.

The subtext of the film is just as interesting as the hostage drama. Like several seventies movies, this is as much about an urban community on the brink of meltdown. In the 1971 gangster thriller Villain, Britain is seen as a country in turmoil; nothing works, the gang can't rob a company payroll because the staff have gone on strike, the roadworks prevent an easy getaway. Similarly, Richard Lester's Juggernaut takes place on the Brittania, an ocean liner representing a country with nothing to do and no purpose except to sail aimlessly from one port to another. Sargent's film does the same for New York. Everything goes wrong. The hopeless Mayor decides to pay the ransom - getting it to the train on time is more difficult than expected, due to the traffic nightmare, but he's more concerned about being booed by the crowd when he arrives at the scene. The snipers set up in the subway tunnel can't resist taking a pot shot at one of the terrorists. Matthau is forced to not only negotiate with the increasingly unstable Shaw, but also tackle his foul mouthed controller, hilariously played by Dick O'Neill, whose idea of negotiating with terrorists is to engage in a slanging match with them and whose idea of customer service is summed up by the line "Screw the passengers ! What do they expect for 35 cents ? To live forever ?" Cynicism is rife - the Mayor sums up small time incompetence trying for greatness and failing miserably. His deputy, the undervalued Tony Roberts, responds acidly, "The Times will support you, the News will knock you, the Post will take both sides at the same time, the rich'll support so, likewise the Blacks and the Puerto Ricans won't give a shit !" while his wife suggests that the best reason to pay the ransom is to gain "18 sure votes".

There is a palpable feeling of Matthau as the one sane man in the middle of madness. It's a fabulous performance - he is first seen napping against an office window and all the way through he seems slightly apart from everyone else, as if a feeling of remove is the only way he can survive. He contrasts well with his colleagues, notably the insanely aggressive O'Neill and the very droll Jerry Stiller (father of Ben) who suggests that the terrorists will escape by "flying the train to Cuba". The bad guys are equally colourful. Robert Shaw's Mr Blue is genuinely unnerving because of his rationality and refusal to show emotion and Shaw does some of his best screen work because he never, for once, hams it up. Hector Elizondo is unusually unpleasant as Mr
Grey, a thuggish racist who is just as interested in the prospect of raping a hooker on the train as in getting his share of the loot. As for Mr Green, Martin Balsam manages to remain sympathetic while being thoroughly reprehensible - and his chronic sneezing proves to be his hugely satisfying undoing.

The actors make the most of the salty dialogue in Peter Stone's carefully constructed script. Stone, best known for his marvellous work on Stanley Donen's Charade, writes killingly funny one liners and works hard to distinguish between his four kidnappers. Admittedly, he sometimes resorts to using four letter words and scatology for easy laughs - but it has to be said, the laughs do come, loud and frequent. This is as good a balance between thrills and humour as there has ever been. He's not so successful with the passengers on Pelham 123, all of whom are from the top drawer marked "Disaster Movie Stereotypes", but thankfully they are marginalised to a point where we aren't asked to really care about what happens to them. The tension comes from our determination that Matthau won't be outsmarted by Shaw, not from our fears for the passengers' safety.

Joseph Sargent's direction is definitely over-emphatic, accompanied by some editing that isn't so much razor sharp as sledgehammer obvious, but he does build an impressive sense of mounting tension and he gives space to allow his cast to shine. Shooting in 2.35:1 was an interesting decision since it gives the film an expansive feel despite the rather claustrophobic interiors which dominate the story. The superb lighting by Owen Roizman deftly distinguishes between the bright lights of the control room and the gloom of the tunnel and the suspense is heightened by David Shire's pounding score, immediately identifiable as coming from the mid-seventies, which has become a cult in itself.

This is the sort of film which is so entertaining that it's hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it. There are witty satirical asides, laugh-out-loud jokes and genuinely nail-biting tension. The conclusion is simple but clever and it's bound to make first-time viewers go "Oh, of course !" and Sargent and Stone make sure they include a nice final touch to send the audience home with a smile. Endlessly rewatchable, if only for the much-missed Matthau, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a highly recommended delight.

The Disc

MGM haven't exactly wasted any time on making this a particularly special R2 release. It's entirely average as a DVD package and only the cheap RRP makes it worth considering for purchase.

The film is presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. This is good in the sense that the film has not been available in the UK in its correct aspect ratio before. However, I don't think there is any possible excuse for a major distributor releasing a non-anamorphic transfer of a Scope film in April 2002. It's not a particularly good transfer in any case. There is a considerable amount of artifacting visible during the frequent scenes which take place in semi-darkness and there is frequent edge enhancement to be seen. I wasn't too impressed by the richness of the colours or the deepness of the blacks either. In fairness, the level of detail is generally good and it's entirely watchable but this is not really a satisfactory transfer.

The soundtrack is the original Mono track. Perfectly adequate and clear with no obvious problems. There are a wide range of subtitles and five language options for the film.

The only extra on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, which is entertainingly dated as is the way of these things. For a film with serious cult credentials, the lack of extra materials is rather disappointing. MGM's policy for many of the films they got from United Artists seems to be to stick them on a no-frills disc and sell them cheap. There are 16 chapter stops and static menus.

A thoroughly professional, exciting thriller has received a basic but adequate DVD release. The film is a must-see but this DVD doesn't give you any pressing reason to buy it, apart from the low price.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 17:58:17

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