June 8, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (1974)

LIKE MOST PEOPLE MY AGE, my first exposure to legendary actor Robert Shaw was his role as Quint in Jaws. But his previous film, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, is one that any fan of Shaw’s should also check out – not just for Shaw, but for a well-crafted heist/thriller with great performances, believable plot, and an unmistakable point (and location) in time.

Plot:
• From the film’s opening – featuring composer David Shire’s marching drumbeat and staccato horns, coupled with the stencil font of the credits – Pelham screams “1970s New York crime drama” (in a good way).
• After being introduced to a bunch of working stiffs at the New York Transit Authority, we watch four men step onto the Pelham 1 2 3 subway train – all with identical hats, coats, glasses, and mustaches.
• The men – comprised of team leader Mr. Blue (Shaw), ex-transit worker Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), loose cannon Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), and stammering young gun Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) – take the train and its 18 passengers hostage. Their demand: One million dollars. And for every minute the ransom is late, they’ll shoot a hostage.
• Trying to negotiate the situation at the transit command center is lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), who uses stall tactics, occasional humor, and a few white lies to keep Shaw and his team at bay.
• Meanwhile, it’s up to the mayor (Ed Koch lookalike Lee Wallace) to decide whether to pay the ransom – and if so, can it be delivered in time?

Critique:
• Director Joseph Sargent effectively captures the ‘70s grittiness of New York City, from the screech-filled platforms of the subway system to the un-PC work environment of the Transit Authority.
Shaw is amazing to watch. His Mr. Blue never gets rankled during the standoff (he passes the time doing crossword puzzles). His tone and facial expressions remain constant and in control, even when aspects of the heist turn tragic or he’s dealing with the growing tension between himself and Elizondo’s Mr. Grey. (Blue vs. Grey: a play on Civil War colors? Discuss.)
Peter Stone’s screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) does a superb job of tying all aspects of the story together, leaving little room for loopholes or what-ifs. He creates a thrilling yet believable atmosphere and plot, making you feel like the events in the film could actually happen.
• The supporting cast, from the transit workers to the unnamed patrons of the Pelham subway car, all do a commendable job in creating an environment dripping with Noo Yawk attitude. Special kudos to Tom Pedi for his hilariously profane turn as “Fat Kaz” – a grouchy transit supervisor who, when told to watch his language in front of a woman, replies, “How the hell can you run a goddamned railroad without swearing?”

Odds and ends:
• The color-coded names of Shaw and his team undoubtedly influenced Quentin Tarantino when naming his crew of criminals in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs.
• Earl Hindman, aka the stuttering Mr. Brown, found fame two decades later as Tim Allen’s facially obstructed neighbor Wilson on TV’s Home Improvement.
Pelham is name-checked by the Beastie Boys in their 1994 hit “Sure Shot.”
• The name of an actor who plays a subway guard? Jim Pelham.
• Watch for Jerry Stiller (Seinfeld, King of Queens) in a supporting role, plus a bit part by Everybody Loves Raymond's Doris Roberts as the mayor’s wife.

A remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 opens this Friday (June 12), and I’m rooting for it for a couple of reasons:
• It’s written by Brian Helegand, co-writer of FilmFather Favorite L.A. Confidential.
• Fellow dad-blogger John Wildermuth worked on it as first assistant director and associate producer (read my interview with John here).

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is the kind of filmmaking indicative of its era – a gritty crime drama with just enough levity and camaraderie to create a fun, satisfying film experience.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Will your kids want to watch it?
Older kids (teens) may think it’s a cool concept, and if you think they can handle gun violence and a colorful array of profanities, then they should be fine with it. I’d keep pre-teens away from it, though.

Will your FilmMother like it?
If she likes thrillers, crime dramas, or any of the stars listed above, she should enjoy the movie. Otherwise, make it one to watch alone or with the guys (or older sons).

Ah, the lost art of the movie poster...
anybody else miss one-sheets like this?

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
* Director: Joseph Sargent
* Screenwriter: Peter Stone
* Stars: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman, Dick O’Neill, Jerry Stiller
* MPAA Rating: R


Buy this movie for less at Half.com >>

10 comments:

James (SeattleDad) said...

I love hiest movies. Thanks for the recommnedation.

joe said...

Hopefully in this film shaw's character doesn't meet such a gruesome end as he did in Jaws. It would be nice to think he got through at least one movie unscathed...

Keith said...

I like movies like this. I've never seen this one though. I always liked Robert Shaw.

Jim @ CoolStuffForDads.com said...

Looks like a cool movie. Great review. Shaw was great in Jaws.

JLG said...

Hey, reading your blog for the first time and wanted to say, great stuff! Great idea for a blog!

Matt-suzaka said...

Pelham is a great film, I love the grittiness of it, and the performances are fantastic. Being in my early 30's, it is nice to see Saggy faced Matthau in a non-comedic role that he is better known for from people of my age range.

Of course, Shaw is fantastic in this film for all the reasons you mentioned, but I also really liked the part Hector Elizondo played too. I cannot believe that "Mr. Brown" is Wilson!

KeegsMom said...

Just caught this on tv the other night, saw it many years ago but had forgotten much of it. what a great movie. What a great TIME for movies it was.

Raymond said...

My dad turned me on to this movie back when I was a kid. I've been fortunate enough to see it several times since then and am always glued to the storyline and plot just as I was when I was much younger.

The footage of NYC in this film is fantastic. It captures the gritty 1970s of NYC perfectly: big over sized police cars, the grimy subway system to name a few.

Cast in this movie is fantastic and I cannot imagine the Travolta/Washington version being any better.

wiec? said...

great review! although everyone is great in it, my heart always went out for Balsam. he's really out of his depth it seems throughout the movie but in the end... i don't want to spoil it for those who haven't seen it.

and yer spot on about it having that authentic NY feel. i've lived in NYC most of my life and you can always tell when it's filmed here in the city or on a sound stage somewhere in L.A.

also i had no idea Wilson was Mr. Brown. That's trivia you need to know to score the daily double on Jeopardy. so thanks for that!

Gemma said...

Just saw the new Pelham today. Thought it was REALLY good, but never saw the original. Can't wait to do that. Sounds as if the new one had a different take on the personalities. Am anxious to compare the characters---or shouldn't I do that? Great review--I MUST see this one!!

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