The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

2009 #43
Joseph Sargent | 104 mins | download | 15 / R

The Taking of Pelham One Two ThreeMovies have taught us many things, and here’s another: don’t take the train from Pelham Bay Park at 1:23. In the past thirty-five years said train has been taken hostage three times, and while once every 11⅔ years may not sound a particularly high average, I’d wager it’s higher than for most trains.

The most recent was this summer, in a Tony Scott-directed remake which unfortunately replaced the titular numbers with, well, numbers in a re-titling move just waiting for reviewers to accuse it of illiteracy. It was criticised for more than just that of course, but one positive is that the original ’70s film cropped up in plenty of places at the time. By which I mean it was on TV once and offered as iTunes’ 99p Film of the Week. But don’t knock shameless tying-in — it means I’ve seen it.

Having not seen either remake (the second was a 1998 TV movie) I can’t compare, but the original is a taught, well-paced thriller. It takes place in something startling close to real-time — a pacing trick I always find pleasing for no explicable reason — but still doesn’t rush things, without ever being slow. Much like the criminals at its heart, then.

Their leader is Robert Shaw, who makes a terrific villain: calm, uncompromising, and British, the primary prerequisite of a perfect Hollywood bad guy. As the unlikely hero, Garber, Walter Matthau is a terrific foil at the other end of the phone, dryly sardonic as he attempts to effectually organise a dozen services. There are also the occasional injections of humour; never inappropriate, instead making the situation feel all the more real.

Unfortunately, for almost every great element there’s a flawed one. The ending is a bit dubious, with the much-hyped escape plan nothing exciting — they simply override the one plot device that stands between them and the most obvious plan. Equally, Shaw’s death, while quite a neat ending for a villain, doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense for his character. Mr Green’s sneezing is a handy device, though for my money its ultimate use became obvious the moment Garber first heard it.

And though the credits snappily define all 18 of the hostages (The Homosexual, The Pimp, etc), for the most part it doesn’t really matter — most of them never even speak; at best, only one or two are really characterised. It’s a shame, because having such clear types could be put to good use in all sorts of ways, be it just for laughs, subverting stereotypes, or something as deep as social commentary.

The original Taking of Pelham One Two Three is still an excellent film, but these little niggles take the edge off its quality.

4 out of 5

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