THE FILM 4.5/5
A gang of armed professionals hijack a New York subway train somewhere outside the Pelham station threatening to kill one hostage per minute unless their demands are met. Forced to stall these unknown assailants until a ransom is delivered or a rescue is made, transit chief Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) must shrewdly outmaneuver one of the craftiest and cruelest villains (Robert Shaw) in a battle of wits that will either end heroically or tragically.
To lean on an overused expression, they really don’t make films like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three anymore. The remakes from 1998 with Vincent D’Onofrio and 2009 with Denzel Washington and John Travolta, as directed by Tony Scott, proved that with ease. Because the uniqueness of the original Pelham is very much a product of the time in which it was made.
As has already been proven, the future has a bad memory. Over time, individuals who were once prominent actors, or filmmakers, slip into the ether. Names like Walter Matthau or Robert Shaw, celebrated during their time, may or may not survive the pop culture purge that’s currently in progress with the generation just below our own. Names like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, who died young, beautiful, and tragically, will always live on, while some of their colleagues will become trivia in board games and movie theater screens just before the ads for Hyundai begin to play. For some, those names are already forgotten, but for those who still remember, it might still come as a surprise that Walter Matthau, best remembered for his lifelong friendship and multiple on-screen couplings with Jack Lemmon, did his fair share of roles in the 1970s where he played kind of a badass. Not Schwarzenegger or Stallone levels of badass, mind you, but a different kind of badass. With his roles in Pelham, or Charley Varrick, or The Laughing Policeman, the lanky and limber Matthau exuded that 1970s version of a badass, without the egocentricity of ridiculous musculature or an array of militaristic weapons. Matthau could be a badass only with a look, or a wry smile, or a perfectly timed cutting remark. His resistance to authority, his disdain for bureaucracy, and his insistence on always getting his man made him a less showy but just as effective “action” hero.
As for the villain (well, the lead villain), Robert Shaw’s menacing, icy, and subtly funny take on Mr. Blue (yep, Tarantino steals from all over) is a perfect foil to Matthau’s Lt. Zachary Garber. He is very much no-nonsense, at times treating the hostages in his subway car with more respect than his fellow heisters (brought to life by the likes of Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and yes, Earl Hindman, aka Tim Taylor’s neighbor, Wilson, in nine years of Home Improvement). When one uses the term effortlessly cool for actors from this era, the names Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood come to mind, but Robert Shaw out-cooled them all. Perhaps best remembered as Quint from Jaws, followed by his villainous turns in The Sting and From Russia with Love, his untimely death at 51 is one of the worst tragedies to befall the art of cinema, as it robbed us from so many more potentially great roles from the underrated British actor.
Two strong lead actors aside, Pelham’s greatest strength is its screenplay, based on the novel by John Godey (Johnny Handsome) and adapted by Peter Stone (Charade; 1776). Channeling Die Hard before Die Hard existed, the majority of Matthau and Shaw’s scenes together are shared via radio between the New York City subway operations hub and the taken train car, and despite this, the men manage to show a tremendous rapport, anyway. Helping this is the cracking, sharp-witted dialogue, which comes off as both cinematic and realistic at the same time. Add to that a slice of political incorrectness (it’s true—in previous eras, it was okay to laugh at the things that made us different) and a ground-zero look at how different facets of city culture react to a terrorist event (topical!), and the end result is The Taking of Pelham One Two Three—one of the only times domestic terrorism was fun.
Director Joseph Sargent (White Lightning; Jaws: The Revenge) matches the thrills with the laughs, presenting an old-fashioned good time with one of the best, ironic, and expertly executed endings of all time. And to forgive another overused expression, Pelham’s DNA lives, breathes, and bleeds New York–to the point where the city is not just another character but the main character. In fact–move over, Spike Lee–Pelham just might be the most New York film ever, from the emphasis on local actors for bit parts, to bigger-than-life New York attitudes, to iconic city geography, and to how ably Sargent captures the city, warts and all. Having set The Taking of Pelham One Two Three in any other city would have stripped away its identity, its wryness, and most importantly, its sense of humor.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a classic of the genre, the sub-genre, or however you want to catalog it. It exists in a simpler time, both historically and cinematically, when all you needed for something to go so wrong was a handful of homegrown men with a plan, and all you needed to right that wrong was someone on the opposite end of the radio to ensure those men never reach the last stop.
THE PICTURE 4/5
Those hoping for a newer transfer might be disappointed to learn that this is the same transfer that MGM released on their barebones 2011 blu-ray edition. Having said that, there wasn’t anything wrong with that transfer to begin with. Grain-haters may take out their pitchforks, as this transfer is filled with it, but it also presents the film as it was shot and how it appeared in theaters. The grain preserves the film’s gritty and dank appearance, which adds to the film’s appeal. There are no signs of digital tampering, no DNR, and nothing artificial about the appearance. Much of the film takes place in dim settings like malfunctioning train cars or subway tunnels and platforms, but the image never suffers because of it. Flesh tones, textures, image stability–all of it is rock solid.
THE SOUND 4/5
Sound from this era wasn’t particularly dynamic, so it’d be unfair to hold that against the audio presentation on the disc. Pelham is largely dialogue driven, anyway, except when scenes of dynamic gunplay or car chases are complemented by composer David Shire’s musical score–one of the all-time best. Scenes set underground on the subway tunnels or platforms benefit from echo and station ambience and sound remarkably strong. City exteriors exude the New Yorkness of New York, all while Shire’s score builds beautifully.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 4/5
In keeping with the “time goes on” motif, most of the major players involved in Pelham‘s production have since passed on, but Kino has done an admirable job in tracking down those still with us to share their thoughts and recollections nearly 45 years later. In his interview, Hector Elizondo fondly recalls working with director Joseph Sargent, and his co-stars Walter Matthau, who got him to quit smoking, Earl Hindman, whom he called quiet, and Robert Shaw, whom he called “competitive.” His enthusiasm and respect for the film remains all these years later and it shows–this segment is very philosophical, and Elizondo comes across as poignant and charming.
Composer David Shire talks in his own interview, obviously, about his musical score and how it came to be–attempting to bring to musical life the sound of New York and its subway system. He amusingly describes his earlier attempts at scoring Pelham as “bad Lalo Schifrin” and “bad flute jazz.”
In the interview with editor Jerry Greenberg, he talks about the intentions behind the film’s blending of genres as well as the studio’s insistence that some of the action scenes be beefed up (hence the sequence in which police cars race money through city streets until one flips over). Yep, even nearly fifty years ago, producers were still meddling in their directors’ films.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
— Interview with Star Hector Elizondo (12 mins)
— Interview with Composer David Shire (9 mins)
— Interview with Editor Jerry Greenberg (9 mins)
— Audio Commentary by Actor/Filmmaker Pat Healy and Film Historian Jim Healy
— “Trailers From Hell” with Josh Olson
— Animated Montage of Stills and Posters
— Original Theatrical Trailer
— Reverse Blu-ray Art
DISTRIBUTOR: Kino Lorber
THEATRICAL DATE: October 2, 1974
VIDEO STREET DATE: July 5, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p; 2.35:1
AUDIO: English 2.0 Stereo
RUN TIME: 104 min
DVD COPY: N/A
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: N/A
Films from the 1970s, and even the ’80s, are becoming the new black and white pictures of the 1930s–i.e., undesirable, uninteresting, “boring.” Little by little, films like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three are being forgotten, in favor of more modern action fare. What boutique labels like Kino, Twilight Time, and Shout! Factory are doing is so important, in that they are literally keeping older titles like Pelham alive. While physical media seems to be on its last leg (good luck, UHD), here’s hoping that the audiences who grew up with films from this era, and those who didn’t but can still appreciate them anyway, will continue to support releases like these and keep that interest burning. Because you never know: out of every fifty purchases by one of us old fogies, maybe one of them is by a young, blossoming cineaste who wants a taste of what films used to be like before everything became so branded and CGIed–and that’s not something to sneeze at.
(Thanks to Rock! Shop! Pop! for the screen grabs.)
Kino Lorber was founded in 2009, combining the resources, staffs and libraries of Lorber Films, Alive Mind and Kino International to create a new leader in independent film distribution. Through its varied group of labels, Kino Lorber offers the best in contemporary, classic and documentary films that aim to engage, provoke, stimulate, and entertain today’s audiences.