The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Joseph Sargent
Release Year:
Peter Stone
Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam
Screening Date:
  • 17 Sep 2017
  • Categories:
    Action, Crime, Thriller

    Classic '70s thriller to start the season! Armed men hijack a subway car in NYC and demand a ransom for the passengers. Action, great pace and it's all about the plot. Starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam.

    Film Notes

    The notion sounds crazy to begin with. Four armed criminals hijack a subway train and hold 18 hostages. They're surrounded by dozens of cops, they're in a tunnel with no way out, and how do you hide a subway train? "They're gonna fly it to Cuba," one cop speculates. Walter Matthau has a better idea: “They're gonna get away by asking every man, woman and child in New York City to close their eyes and count to a hundred." In fact, they've got a pretty neat plan. It's been coordinated by Robert Shaw who plays a former mercenary soldier. His team members include two professional criminals and a fired motorman (Martin Balsam) with a grudge. They separate the car from the rest of the train and radio their demands to the dispatcher; $1 million in one hour, or a passenger will be killed every minute. When “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” first appeared as a novel, I avoided it on the reasonable grounds that (a) there was no plausible way to hijack a subway train, and (b) if there was, it would be so obvious it wouldn't be interesting. The movie's plot inclines towards (b). The gang has a good, sound plan, not too complicated, and they almost get away with it. But the movie's appeal -- which is considerable -- doesn't depend on the plan or on the easily foreseeable plot. It depends instead on a nice feel for New York City and some fine, detailed performances. Walter Matthau is gruff, shaggy and sardonic as a Transit Authority lieutenant; Robert Shaw is clipped and cruel, and the supporting performances are allowed to grow and take on personality. These aren't machine-made genre characters, but individuals (and, more specifically, New Yorkers with gallows humor, paranoia, warmth and resiliency). This note of unforced realism extends even to the passengers being held hostage. I walked into the theater just as the end titles were rolling up on the previous show, and the credits for the passengers included such standbys as the Deliver Boy, the WASP, the Old Man, the Hooker, the Older Son, the Spanish Woman, the Pimp, the Hippie, the Homosexual, and the Co-eds (numbered Co-ed One and Co-ed Two). Great, I thought this is gonna be another rerun of those World War II movies where the platoon is a cross-section of American racial, social and ethnic stereotypes and everybody does his shtick. Wrong--the passengers may have been cast according to their stereotyped titles, but in the movie they're just a carful of scared people. They're handled convincingly, and the details of the hijack are worked out in a straightforward, plausible way; the film concentrates on the communications between Walter Matthau, trying to buy time, and Robert Shaw, maintaining credibility. We don't have to endure a series of "Airport"-style vignettes in which a pregnant woman goes into labor, a guitar-playing nun cheers people up, etc. Above ground, the police work is presented in a plausible way, too. The cops are confused, their reaction is chaotic (how do you tell a subway car to pull over and stop?) and the mayor is concerned about his slumping popularity. "Look at it this way," his wife reasons. "If you ransom those hostages, you've got 18 sure votes."
    Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, October 2, 1974.


    What you thought about The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    31 (43%) 36 (50%) 4 (6%) 0 (0%) 1 (1%)
    Total Number of Responses: 72
    Film Score (0-5): 4.33

    Collated Response Comments

    118 members and guests attended the first screening of the new season. 61% provided comments including 5 members who e mailed their score and opinion. Based on the feedback approx. 10% of you thought the sound was too loud. Sorry about that. We had screened all the films prior to the season starting and thought we had identified the correct sound levels. We will be adjusting the volume level for future English language screenings. The majority view was that this was a classic American film, undoubtedly of its time; but one member felt it was “rather dated, the music, the clothes the look and sound of it”, while another said “I can’t believe I haven't seen this before. Maybe it was just the title that put me off. Really pleased to have seen it now as it was an absorbing film with a great underlying humour in the face of a dark and violent subject matter. Walter Matthau was brilliant and the rest of the cast very strong too. Time flew by - always a sign of a film that grabs you”. This was echoed by “Superb! A 1970s classic from the start with its thumping, strident score (initially intrusive but quickly melding into the background). Must be one of Walter Matthau's best performances. Captured 1970s New York to a T - complete with all its subliminal racism, misogyny and sexism. Very tautly directed and filmed - no superfluous or intrusive bits. And to cap it, one of the best film endings of all time in Matthau's wonderfully expressive peep back round the door - "Gotcha…"!! The one jarring note (but of its time) was the almost complete lack of good female parts (acting, that is!)”. Other comments followed in a similar vein, applauding the acting in general, Matthau in particular and the presentation of a very different New York to the one you will find if you visit today. These are some of them: “A marvellous start to the new season”. “I found the film gripping from beginning to end and I liked the typical 1970s take on New York humour, albeit dark. The storyline, sets, direction and script were obviously dated but this is part of its draw and I think the lack of CGI, modern day technology and more contemporary scenes of graphic violence clears the way to focus on the acting and their character development, bit like a stage play really”. “I enjoyed the film mainly for the acting and its interest as a 'period piece'. Although described as a thriller, it did not hold much suspense for me and came across as a black comedy with its rich humour in the face of extreme violence”. “From the start with the pulsating musical score over the opening credits, this film maintains a sublime blend of high tension, wry humour and well-crafted characterisation throughout, with an inspired denouement in the very final frames....gesundheit indeed. I confess I have seen this film many times, and if anyone enjoyed it for the first time I highly recommend repeated viewing - there are lots of little subtleties that are easily missed first time round”. “Tense exciting and atmospheric”. “Classic”. “Wonderfully politically incorrect”. “Funnier that I remembered and better than the remake”. “A hymn to NYC, great atmosphere and build-up of tension”. “A good old fashioned thriller. No blood and gore just clever dialogue, humour and an excellent plot with great acting”. “Very enjoyable. Realistic characters, suspense, unexpected twists. A good soundtrack. Excellent first choice of the year”. “I’ve not seen it in over 40 years and now know why I thought it so good. It sets the style for so many thrillers, but with more humour, believable characters, and a gritty realism they so often lack. The “Die Hard” series surely owes it a huge debt, even down to Robert Shaw instead of Alan Rickman. I’d take Matthau over Willis any day”. “If only every modern thriller had a plot as solid as this one and characters as well built as these…” “Who would have thought you could make a believable film about high jacking a subway train”. “Great acting – gripping- superb ending”. “Very much a movie of its time…still highly enjoyable”. “Great film – pity much of it was in a foreign language! The Englishman was quite clear. Captured the grit and grime of a bygone New York, but failed to build much tension”.

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