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TCMFF 2021: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Few eras of cinema exist which are quite as memorable or as transformative as the 1970s. Hollywood had been changing since the fall of the studio system and and in just a single decade, the changes to not only the industry, but culture as a whole became strikingly apparent. These cultural differences were seen perhaps in the most dramatic clarity in the ‘New York in Trouble’ films which took shape during this period. During this month’s TCM Classic FIlm Festival, the network spotlighted a first time watch (for me) in this powerful movement: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

The plot of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is relatively simple. During an average weekday afternoon in Manhattan, a group of men (led by Robert Shaw) hijack a subway train filled with passengers with one goal… They want…

The man with the unenviable task of standing between the criminals and the New York City government is a perpetually tired New York Transit Officer (Walter Matthau). I think everyone living in New York in the 1970s was exhausted. Will he be able to save the day before the men begin killing hostages? The film brings together a fascinating supporting cast, including: Jerry Stiller, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Earl Hindman to name a few. Joseph Sargent directs the film from a script by Peter Stone.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is an iconic entry into a very specific sub-genre, the “New York In Trouble” picture. You know these movies: Death Wish, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection and Panic in Needle Park… again, to name a few. These movies each show New York as a city on the brink. The glamour of the 1940s and 1950s led to overcrowding, economic disparity and crime. The urban deterioration showed in every facet of daily life and it’s visible in each and every grimy frame of these movies. They aren’t away the easiest watches, but they each fascinating cultural artifacts. 

As I mentioned, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was a first-time watch for yours truly and I found myself immediately taken by the dark tone of this picture and how it’s manipulated by the brilliant casting. Of course, Robert Shaw (best known to audiences for his iconic portrayal of Quint in Jaws) absolutely takes the metaphorical ball and runs for the end zone. He plays “Mr. Blue” (yes, this is where Quentin Tarantino took the character names he used in his own legendary crime film Reservoir Dogs) Shaw is coldly understated yet terrifying as the main villain. You don’t want to mess with him… unless you’re Lt. Garber (Matthau) that is.

There’s the presence of a wry sense of humor in this script which feels oddly at home in this dreary setting. There’s a sense of “If I don’t chuckle my way through this, I’d cry”. This is seen to perfectly crafted effect in the film’s fascinating final sequence. However, this was a first-time-watch for me, so I’m not giving you any spoilers either. Though, in thinking about the film in hindsight, the life and humor injected into the script is its saving grace. In the hands of other performers, this movie could be a real downer. I’ll leave it at that.

When I say this picture is dark, I mean The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is really dark. This goes not only for the tone of the script, but for the visual aesthetic as well. Like, it’s turn up the brightness on your television set dark. Much of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three takes place in a stalled subway train inside one of the tunnels… and Robert Shaw’s character revels in turning out all the lights. So, with that, there are big chunks of the film swathed in actual darkness.

In his direction, Joseph Sargent captures a real sense of being trapped. This isn’t visible only in the work in the subway, but throughout the film. In his work with his creative team, Sargent taps into the overwhelming claustrophobia of a massive city like New York. There’s a real sense of being trapped. These people are trapped in the subway, Lt. Garber is trapped in his cavernous office building, even the police officers on the street are closed-in and stuck. Throughout The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the prevailing image of New York is that of an overpowering urban jungle and suddenly, the city’s struggles during the era make sense. These people are all trapped in a concrete prison with no way to escape.

As an extra, if you have an HBO Max subscription this month, be sure to tune into the special bonus content: Pelham One Two Three: NYC Underground. This is another in what has been a sterling series of documentaries provided to the festival by producer Bruce Goldstein. Like the others in the series (The Naked City, Speedy and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), he analyzes this film as a historical document of Manhattan’s not so distant past. In this movie, we see New York City as a vital, powerful and very much living city, preserving the memory of the city as it was… with all warts visible.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three hit movie screens as part of the dark and grimy ‘New York in Trouble’ sub-genre. However, the brilliant casting of the film, particularly the well-crafted interplay between Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw elevates the narrative to a more complicated place and with this, audiences gain an appreciation of not only this powerful story, but the environment out of which it sprung.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is airing on HBO Max as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival. 

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