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TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, THE (director: Joseph Sargent; screenwriters: from the book by John Godey/Peter Stone; cinematographer: Owen Roizman; editors: Robert Q. Lovett/Jerry Greenberg; music: David Shire; cast: Walter Matthau (Lt. Zachary ‘Z’ Garber), Robert Shaw (Mr. Blue – Bernard Ryder), Martin Balsam (Mr. Green – Harold Longman), Hector Elizondo (Mr. Gray – Joe Welcome), Earl Hindman (Mr. Brown – George Steever), James Broderick (Denny Doyle), Dick O’Neill (Frank Correll), Lee Wallace (The Mayor), Tom Pedi (Caz Dolowicz), Jerry Stiller (Lt. Rico Patrone), Nathan George (Ptl. James), Tony Roberts (Warren LaSalle), Doris Roberts (Mayor’s Wife, Jessie); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Gabriel Katzka/Edgar J. Scherick; United Artists; 1974)
“A kvetchy slice of urban paranoia life tale that’s a precious little jewel.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Noted television director Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three catches the frenetic mood of NYC, which has in place the largest and most crime-ridden subway system in the world. Based on the novel by John Godey, Peter Stone pens a kvetchy slice of urban paranoia life tale that’s a precious little jewel even though it’s little light on content. It characterizes a cross-section of the city in the train passengers held hostage that include: a questioning old Jewish man, an African-American pimp, hispanics who speak no English, noisy white kids, a hooker and a homeless boozer. It also has a good time satirizing the inept mayor, who is a takeoff on Mayor Abe Beame but looks like the loudmouth Ed Koch (served as NYC mayor from 1978-1989).

Three men dressed in similar trench coats, Groucho Marx-like masks and carrying machine guns board the downtown Manhattan local Pelham 123 train (named for its station-of-origin and time of departure) at different stops and in different cars, and the fourth man stays on the 28th Street station and sticks a gun in the motorman’s face and makes him open the door to his cab. They disconnect the front car and hijack the first train car and hold 18 passengers as hostages as one of the gang, called Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), a fired motorman for dealing narcotics now fighting a nasty cold, drives the train between the 28th and 23rd Street stops and they then cut the power and contact the Command Center to speak to Transit Authority officer Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) making a demand of $1 million in ransom and if it’s not delivered in time they’ll start executing a passenger for every minute delayed. They are led by a smooth-talking Brit called Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw ), who reveals himself as a former life insurance salesman and a former British army colonel and mercenary soldier in Africa. The most menacing gang member is Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), a psychopath who was too crazy to remain in the Mafia; and, lastly there’s the quiet professional criminal Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman).

The heads of the Transit Authority and the Police Department meet with the Mayor and his aggressive adviser, the Deputy Mayor, Warren Lasalle (Tony Roberts), in Gracie Mansion and decide to pay the ransom only when the mayor’s wife says he’s sure to get their 18 votes in the next election. The fast-paced action cross-cuts between the efforts to get the money there on time, the situation on the train and at the TA Command Center. The dialogue is filled with salty Noo Yawkese talk (lots of curse words), and with the witty Matthau laden with a heavy NYC accent but at his unflappable best as he negotiates with the hijackers after cutting his tour guide duty short of showing off the transit system to a group of visiting Japanese directors of the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway System–that he mistakenly thinks don’t speak English .

The hijacker’s scheme to escape with the loot in the underground tunnel is inventive, and the film remains both comical and tense throughout.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”