Four armed men hijack a New York City subway train and demand 1 million dollars - which must be delivered in 1 hour - for the train and the lives of the passengers held hostage. Lt. Zachary Garber of the New York City Transit Police must contend with City Hall red tape, the unrelenting demands of the hijackers, and the ever-ticking clock in his efforts to save the passengers and bring the hijackers to justice.
Walter Matthau ... Lt. Garber
Robert Shaw ... Blue
Martin Balsam ... Green
Hector Elizondo ... Grey
Earl Hindman ... Brown
James Broderick ... Denny Doyle
Dick O'Neill ... Frank Correll
Lee Wallace ... The Mayor
Tom Pedi ... Caz Dolowicz
Beatrice Winde ... Mrs. Jenkins
Jerry Stiller ... Lt. Rico Patrone
Nathan George ... Ptl. James
Rudy Bond ... Police Commissioner
Kenneth McMillan ... Borough Commander (as Kenneth Mc Millan)
Doris Roberts ... Mayor's Wife
It is my belief that the finest era for films was the 1970's. Consider all the classics that were produced in that era (Godfather I and II, Patton, The Sting, Jaws, Mean Streets, The Exorcist, The French Connection, Star Wars etc). My belief was recently validated by Jodie Foster, who essentially said the same thing. One of the reasons why the films were great was that the directors were ostensibly in control of the films, rather than by a committee of the usual Hollywood "insiders" who think they know what people want to see, but rarely make the correct decisions.
I know that this film was re-made( for TV)--God knows why--but I'm sure if they attempted another film version Matt Damon would be playing the grizzled transit police cop (Matthau's role) and Jude Law would be playing the Robert Shaw role. That's another reason why the original and other films of the 70's were so great: the casting was more believable. Today Hollywood is so incredibly youth-obsessed that actors are completely miscast.
I am not stating that this is another 70's classic, but even this film is far superior to many of today's films. And yet, I'll bet you couldn't find "Pelham" in your local video store.
I love several things about this film. The first thing to hit you is that wonderful, funky score that in some parts sounds like controlled chaos. I love the script, which is not completely dark despite the underlying theme, as there are some very funny moments throughout the film: for instance, the chagrined look on Matthau's face when he discovers the Japanese visitors can speak English.
There are many examples of mistaken identity in this film: the supervisor who is gunned down is called "goombah", but he isn't Italian; Matthau thinks the black police captain is white over the radio; Matthau mistakes the long-haired undercover cop (who was shot on the train tracks) for a female. I also love the character who plays the mayor, who unbelievably bears a striking resemblance to Mayor Koch, who was elected 3 years later!!!! All in all a great action film, and one that will hold up for years.
Addendum: Well, they're doing it--they're re-making this film because Hollywood is almost completely bereft of new ideas (see "Josie and the Pussycats" "Bewitched" the upcoming "I Dream of Jeannie"). I half-expect they will remake "The Paper Chase" next with P.Diddy as Professor Kingsfield.
There are many disappointing action pictures out there – this is not one of them. The genius of the film is there is no wasted motion. The picture starts right with the plot – no introduction or character development. The characters are allowed to develop as the plot moves along.
Which brings us to pacing – the pacing in this picture is excellent. It moves right along and never stops, never slows, never goes too fast. This is the strongest element of its success.
Another strength is its economy of motion. Many action pictures bore us with unneeded car chase scenes, shoot-em-ups, explosions and other mayhems that are used as filler when true creativity comes up short. This film needs none of that. Only that which is necessary is shown. Only that which needs speaking is spoken. This film is deftly written and crafted with great economy and this underpins the excellent pacing. It moves right along because there is no wasted motion as there is in most other action pictures.
The directing was equally economical. No fancy shots, shaky cameras, or special effects – just good, straight forward directing.
I doubt this picture could be made today for the above reasons. The script readers would reject it for 'lack of development'; 'not enough action'; 'no romantic interest'; and all the other brainless formulas script readers dole out. The producers would demand 'more action' and 'camera work' from the directors. And, of course, a romantic interest (in some state of undress) would have to be shoe horned in.
Film students should study this picture. From it they will learn that brevity is a virtue and mindless formulas are just that - mindless.
One of my favorite films from the seventies is The Taking of Pelham One, Two Three because it's so New York. Of course the film was shot entirely on location in The Big Apple including the interiors which helped greatly. But more than that, the characters have all the New York flavor about them with one exception.
The cat of course is led by Walter Matthau who plays a Transit Police Lieutenant. His character is a kind of combination of Archie Bunker and Detective Lennie Briscoe from Law and Order, in many ways not terribly admirable. He's also a transit cop and at that time the Transit Police were a separate entity. They were merged into the regular NYPD during the Giuliani administration.
There's no real glory in the Transit Police, these guys were mostly charged with dealing with drunks and kids with loud boom boxes. If a homicide ever occurred the NYPD quickly took it over as they would in most situations. But this ongoing crisis on a train on the Lexington Avenue Local occurs on his watch and it's career make or break case that Matthau is very aware of. And he proves fully capable during the crisis.
The crisis is four men, Robert Shaw, Earl Hindman, Hector Elizondo, and Martin Balsam mount a carefully planned assault on a subway train out of Pelham Bay station in the Bronx in mid-Manhattan and hold it and the passengers for ransom for a million dollars. The outsider to New York is Robert Shaw in one of his best roles, a former British army officer and mercenary. During the course of the robbery they kill a station supervisor played by roly poly Tom Pedi, one very quintessential New Yorker and their coldblooded villainy is established.
In fact the whole cast is a microcosm of the ethnic strains of New York City which makes the film so enjoyable, especially to one who lived there, the first 49 years of his life. Even the mayor is portrayed as a weak, fumbling nonentity and back then our mayor was one Abraham D. Beame who was just that, probably one of the worst mayors the city ever had. Tony Roberts has a very good role as the tough as nails Deputy Mayor concerned about both his boss's political career and resolving the crisis.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three once the hijack is done is suspense filled and doesn't let up for a moment. I can't give the ending away, but the final shot of Walter Matthau's face as the end title music starts and the credits begin to roll is priceless.
* Walter Matthau says "gesundheit" three times during the movie.
* The Transit Authority (TA) of New York at first refused to allow the film to be shot on the actual New York subway. They feared it would lead to imitative crime (it didn't, but their position was shown to be reasonable when the later film Money Train (1995) apparently did). Associate producer Stephen F. Kesten was equally adamant that no other city's subway could be credibly used (and he was apparently right: see the goofs entry for the remake The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1998) (TV)). The TA finally did cooperate after Mayor John V. Lindsay intervened, but they required United Artists to buy anti-hijacking insurance at a cost of $75,000 in addition to paying $275,000 for the use of the subway.
* Walter Matthau had not been on the New York subway in many years at the time this movie was made even though he was born and raised in New York.
* Filmed mostly in the tunnels leading to the decommissioned IND Court St. station in Brooklyn. The station itself served as Grand Central and 28th St., and it is currently the home of the New York City Transit Museum.
* Ever since the release of the film, no #6 train has ever been scheduled to leave Pelham Bay Park at either 13:23 or 01:23.
* Steven Spielberg was considered as director.
* In a TVO interview, the producer said that this film did terrific box office in New York, Toronto, London and Paris -- all cities with subways -- but was considered a flop in the rest of the world.
* SPOILER: Martin Balsam's character frequently worries that he's going to die. By the end of the movie, Balsam is the only one of the four hijackers left alive.