The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three Review
Based on John Godey's best-selling book, this 1974 adaptation of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three centres upon the hijacking of the titular New York subway train by four men armed with machine guns, who are holding the passengers hostage for a million dollar ransom. The city has one hour to come up with the cash, otherwise the hostages will be killed one per minute after the deadline passes. Up against the clock is a typically grumpy collection of New York City Transit Authority cops, fighting the bureaucracy of the system as much as the hoods who've taken their train.
The film still feels very fresh almost forty years later - aside from the casual racism and sexism - because we're not subjected to any political or social statements which are always firmly of their era, and the script isn't bogged down by awkward exposition at crucial stages. And while the depictions of these Noo Yawkers are certainly caricatured (just look at the characters listed in the end credits) they're not satirized, and this warped degree of respect lends itself to what the CD soundtrack liner notes calls 'naturalistic melodrama'. This is evident with the diversity of the train's passengers, because while it's a deliberate ploy to appeal to pretty much any audience member, the often scathing dialogue rescues them from being mere cyphers. This is also true for pretty much every other minor character in the film, who from the Mayor on down are almost always presented as poor schlubs just trying to cover their asses.
It could be argued that the main characters have as little meat on their dramatic bones as the day players, but the story takes place in such a confined time and space (almost in a proto-24 style) that there's simply no need for characters to start spouting their motivations in the middle of a scene. Indeed, the bad guys have only one motivation which requires no further explanation: they want money, and lots of it. We're not even given their real names to begin with, as they only refer to each other by coloured code names (an idea pilfered by Quentin Tarantino for his directorial debut). Mr Blue is the leader, played with cool efficiency by Robert Shaw. Mr Green is the brains of the group, Martin Balsam playing against type as a baddie - albeit a mildly sympathetic one. Hector Elizondo puts in a memorable turn as the psychopathic Mr Grey. Mr Brown is the only one who never really gets a look in, although he's given a stutter so that you can tell him apart from the others. Earl Hindman does the honours there.
The opposition to this ruthless gang comes in the form of Walther Matthau as Lieutenant Zachary Garber, a Transit Authority cop who just happens to be in the subway control centre when Blue calmly announces over the radio that "your train has been taken". The script is smart enough to provide just enough info about the TA plods without dragging the movie down, as Garber has been tasked with showing a few Japanese dignitaries around the place and so we're introduced to a few more of New York's finest in the process, like Lieutenant Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller). (The bit with the Japanese guys has a funny pay-off, so it's not just there to establish the characters.) Both Patrone and Garber are cut from the same cynical, sarcastic cloth but they're also pragmatic men who know how to get the job done as the clock ticks down. And the actors portraying them are native New Yorkers both, so they can do these roles in their sleep.
The film has a definite rhythm to it, and David Shire's wonderful jazz-funk score plays a major part in underlining the key moments. The brooding cue 'The Taking' starts things off slowly, building the tension as Blue's men move into place, and the frantic pace of 'The Money Express' speeds things right up as the city rushes to meet the ransom demand. There's only, what, 20 minutes of music in the film but it's so distinctive that it's as much of a character as anything/anyone else. This is best exemplified by the pounding bass and menacing low brass of the main title music, which (on the soundtrack CD) is two minutes nineteen seconds of pure bad-assery. It was given a bit more of a lighter flourish during the end credits, at the suggestion of Shire's then-wife Talia.
Joseph Sargent's direction is admirably economical. There's not much he can do within the confines of a subway car and the dimly lit tunnels which surround it, but given a rare chance to move the camera he does so with style. And even when we're outside on the streets, the camera doesn't stop to take in any of New York's landmarks because it doesn't have to; the unmistakeable flavour of The Big Apple permeates every frame of the movie thanks to the acid-tongued writing and sour-faced performances. There's plenty of acerbic humour too, highlighted by the withering look on Matthau's face during that ending, which I suppose would qualify as a 'twist' these days.
So, combine the good performances with an effectively paced narrative, a sporadic yet perfect score and a surprisingly foul-mouthed script, and you've got one of the best heist flicks around. I haven't read the book nor have I seen Tony Scott's remake, but they'll have to go some way to beat this version. And if you want to own it in HD, then you'll have to go to your nearest North American Best Buy because this Blu-ray is exclusive to them, for the time being anyway. That said, if you have a look on amazon.com then you should be able to find it from a third party. The region is listed as A on the cover, but thankfully it's coded for region B also.
Let's not beat about the bush: this is not a 'pretty' looking film, and I suspect it was never meant to be. Owen Roizman's 2.35:1 photography has got that gritty '70s vibe to it, with an ever-present layer of grain and subdued colour. The contrast is merely average, with details such as the dark police uniforms dropping away to nothing inside the gloomy subway tunnels. Blacks also barely rise above mediocre. But given that this movie was shot in Panavision (i.e. anamorphic) at a time when fast stock just wasn't all that fast, I'm impressed that the darker scenes were lit as well as they were (some of it may well have been 'pushed' during developing). And I'd rather have the movie as-is, with slightly weak blacks and dull contrast, than to have it with a revisionist contrast boost delivering impenetrable onyx-black darkness and blown-out highlights.
Fine detail has that typical touch of softness which anamorphic glass brings to the table (along with the usual distortion at the edges of the frame) but it holds up well, apart from a couple of brief but obvious optical sections. Mercifully no-one took it upon themselves to jazz up the detail by slathering on a load of edge enhancement, as edge halos are conspicuous by their absence. No outward signs of any overdone DNR either, and the grain and general murkiness are handled very well by this chunky dual-layered AVC encode.
The frame is constantly weaving about from side to side, pointing to an old-school telecine from an IP instead of one of those newfangled scans, but it all adds to the charm. Dirt and scratches pop up occasionally. Would Pelham look noticeably better going straight off of the negative with some state-of-the-art digital TLC? Probably. Would it ever get such attention? Not in a million years; it's taken until 2011 to get a 16x9 enhanced version on the streets, and even then it's a damned retailer exclusive!
The original mono audio has been encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. There's little in the way of depth or dynamics (I've heard plenty of punchier mono mixes than this one) but everything's presented clearly enough and there are no examples of hiss, pops or crackles. There's absolutely nothing there which will trouble the subwoofer, although one good thing about having such a curtailed dynamic range is that the upper end is also scaled back, so the track doesn't sound shrill or overcooked at any point.
The original recordings for David Shire's score are missing presumed destroyed, so even if the audio got a multi-channel makeover there would be little benefit in doing so from a music point of view.
You get one original theatrical trailer, presented in 1080p HD and framed at 2.35:1. And that's yer lot.
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a minor crime classic. I doubt it'll ever get the plaudits it deserves, so this Blu-ray release is the best we're gonna get for a good long while. The video quality won't knock anyone's socks off, but it's a decent effort that hasn't been sullied by lots of digital tinkering, and the grotty DVD can finally be laid to rest. The sound is very similar, being respectful, functional and solidly encoded. The lack of worthwhile extras is a bit of a bum note, but for such a low profile catalogue release I'm not surprised. As mentioned previously, it's an American Best Buy exclusive but it's coded for regions A and B, so it's well worth tracking down.