“Who in the hell would steal a subway train?” This question is asked a lot in this 1974 crime thriller by director Joseph Sargent, which was based on the hit book by Morton Freedgood under the pen name John Godey, but what is not asked often enough is, “Who in the hell would remake this classic?” There are certain types of stories that work best because of the time they were set in, and when you have to tweak your story to make it work in a new setting you are in danger of doing destroying what made the original good in first place. When Tony Scott released his remake in 2009 it hung solely on the shoulders of the star power of John Travolta and Denzel Washington, while in the case of the original film it was more of a character ensemble piece with Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau in the chief adversarial positions. So this review is for those of you out there who may have only seen the 2009 remake (I’m going to assume nobody even remembers the 1998 version with Vincent D’Onofrio and Edward James Olmos), and have not come across this excellent 70s thriller by director Joseph Sargent.
Long before Quentin Tarantino was giving his cast of Reservoir Dogs cool color code names The Taking of Pelham One Two Three had Mister Blue (Robert Shaw), an ex-mercenary and leader of this particular band of criminals, Mister Grey (Hector Elizondo) as the man so nuts he got kicked out of the Mafia, Mister Brown (Earl Hindman), and Mister Green (Martin Balsam) who is the key man to Shaw’s plan as he was an ex-subway train driver for New York City transit. These four men, armed with full automatic weapons, seize a subway car and hold its passengers for a one million dollar ransom.
What sets this movie smack dab in the middle of the 70s is the bizarre humor revolving around racism and sexism. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), a New York City Transit Authority police lieutenant, we first meet as he’s giving a tour to a group of Japanese officials who run the Tokyo Transit System. While showing them around he comes to the wrong conclusion that none of them speak English and so he makes several disparaging racist remarks, even referring to them as monkeys, but when the shit hits the fan with the hostage taking aboard train Pelham One Two Three, and he has to cut tour short, only then does he discover that they all understand English perfectly. The script beautifully slaps a proverbial pie in the face of our protagonist, showing us that our hero is far from perfect. Even later when he meets face to face with Chief Inspector Daniels (Julius Harris), who he’d been in contact with only via radio during the crisis, he is a bit flummoxed to see a Black man.
That the 2009 remake cast Denzel Washington in this part certainly shows that Tony Scott was going in a completely different direction with that character; with Washington’s Garber even under investigation for corruption, while Matthau’s Garber is just your basic New York City civil servant trying to do the best he can within an impossible situation. He’s not an action hero, he’s certainly not movie star handsome, and he’s also a bit of a schmuck. The original film is just littered with interesting and oddball characters; Transit supervisor Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi) repeatedly complains about having a woman working for him, “Oh, come on. If I’ve got to watch my language just because they let a few broads in, I’m going to quit. How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?” Unlike racism this film takes sexism a little more seriously and Dolowicz is later gunned down for his crimes. We also have transit overseer Correll (Dick O’Neill) constantly ripping into Garber for even talking to the hostage takers, he’s more concerned with getting the trains back on schedule. When asked about the safety of the hostages he replies…
For a nail biting thriller there is actually quite a bit of comedy in The Taking of Pelham One Two; Garber’s sarcastic partner Lieutenant Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller) is quick to lighten the mood with such on point observations when everyone is trying to figure out how the gunmen will make their escape from a subway tunnel, “Wait a minute. I just figured out how they’re going to get away. They’re going to fly the train to Cuba.” We also spend time with the Mayor or New York City (Lee Wallace) arguing with Deputy Mayor Warren Lasalle (Tony Roberts) about how to handle the situation, and being the city is greatly in debt several of the Mayor’s suggestions are not all that helpful, “We’re going to let ’em keep the goddamn subway train.”
At its core The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is an ensemble piece with a roster of great actors on both sides of the law; creating characters who make both good and bad decisions leading to some fantastic drama. Robert Shaw’s cool calculating lead villain is riveting; he may be the film’s scariest bad guy but because he is so good at his job we are at times caught up with him and are almost on his side. Then you have Matthau as the perfect counterpoint; he’s not cool or collected like Shaw but he’s also damn good at his job, this makes them perfect antagonists. We don’t get any “Yippe-Ki-yay motherfucker!” moments as we did between Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in Die Hard, as the dynamic is very different here, but instead it’s more of a chess game with the villain trying to stay as many moves ahead as possible. The entire cast really hit every note perfectly and Joseph Sargent’s direction is pitch perfect. I’ll go no further into spoilers as I’d hate to ruin any more of the cool moments in this movie. This is a must see. Accept no substitutes.
Note: Seeing the remake isn’t even a spoiler as the two have almost nothing in common and this film’s brilliant ending is still one of my favorite movie endings of all time.