Friday, February 28, 2014

Watch This: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Directed by Joseph Sargent

Four men wearing glasses, fedora hats, and fake mustaches board a New York City subway train (the Pelham 123) at different stops.  Heavily armed and using code names (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown), the men overpower the motorman and conductor, isolate a group of passengers in the front car, and disconnect it from the rest of the train.  They demand $1 million ransom from the city of New York, to be paid within one hour, or they will begin shooting one hostage every minute until the money is paid.  Their message is received by transit police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walther Matthau), who becomes their main contact with the authorities.  The question arises in the minds of Garber and his colleagues: how will the criminals escape from the enclosed subway tunnel?

So begins the plot of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a gripping, gritty, and undeniably entertaining crime thriller that remains one the most underrated American films of the 1970s.  Strong characterization and a terrific ensemble cast help to elevate the material beyond the realm of the standard heist thriller.  Matthau gives his Lieutenant Garber a sardonic, rebellious quality, showcasing the type of character that will be an unexpected delight for viewers who may only know him from his late-career Grumpy Old Men films.  One of the film's strongest points is the way it depicts the dynamics and conflicting personalities within the group of criminals: the shrewd, disciplined leader, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw); the cold-ridden, knowledgeable Mr. Green (Martin Balsam); the overzealous, trigger-happy Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo); and the young, stuttering Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman).

Astute viewers who have watched a fair amount of television sitcoms over the past two decades will recognize a number of familiar faces in the cast. Jerry Stiller (of Seinfeld and The King of Queens fame) portrays Garber's transit police colleague, and Doris Roberts (Marie from Everybody Loves Raymond) pops up as the mayor's wife.  Home Improvement fans will be treated to performances by Dick O'Neill (best known for playing Tim's high school shop teacher, Mr. Leonard) and Earl Hindman (next door neighbor Wilson), whose mustache-wearing Mr. Brown might lead you to think that he built an entire career out of hiding his face from audiences.

The film holds its own extremely well against contemporary crime films such as The French Connection (1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), thanks to tight plotting, a welcome dose of humor, and a memorably groovy musical score by David Shire.  More than anything, though, the film is one of the truly great New York films, a depiction of the Big Apple in all of its unruly, dangerous, melting pot glory, before the era of political correctness and a cleaned up, tourist-friendly Times Square.  The characters are colorful, profane, and sarcastic, creating an effect that is, at least from a modern perspective, surprisingly endearing.

For those who are interested in seeing Walter Matthau in other roles that lie outside the realm of comedy, the library's collection also offers the crime film Charley Varrick and the cop drama The Laughing Policeman, both released theatrically in 1973.

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