Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam lead an all-star cast in this suspenseful film based on the sizzling best seller by John Godey. A gang of thugs who have hijacked a subway train near New York’s Pelham Station threaten to kill one hostage per minute. Forced to stall the assailants until a ransom is delivered or a rescue made, transit chief Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) must somehow ad-lib, con and outmaneuver one of the craftiest, cruelest villains (Robert Shaw) ever. It’s a race against time, and no one knows whether things will end heroically or tragically in this pulse-pounding thrill ride!
Film (4 out of 5 stars)
The film opens in New York City as we witness four men in trenchcoats and fake mustaches board a subway at different stations. Soon, the men join together on the Pelham 123 subway train and inform the passengers that they are now hostages. The hijackers then isolate the seventeen passengers in one car which they disconnect from the rest of the train. Each one of the hijackers refers to each other by their pre-arranged code names (Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) to ensure their anonymity (which Quentin Tarantino would continue later in Reservoir Dogs).
Meanwhile back at the Grand Central command center, Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) is giving a tour of the facility to some visiting Toyko Metro visitors when one of the hijackers known as Mr. Blue calls the command center to inform them that unless the hijackers receive a ransom of one million dollars within an hour, they will start killing the hostages one at a time for every minute the money is late. While Garber’s superiors pass on the hijackers demands to the their superiors while Garber and his co-worker Rico (Jerry Stiller) try to figure out what’s going on starting with how the hijackers were able to pull it off and where they came from. During his many conversations with Mr. Blue, Garber starts to piece together some clues about the hijackers and their plan. Garber realizes that the hijackers seem to know too much about the transit system and how to use the trains and navigate the tracks, which means that there’s a traitor helping them.
The weak-willed mayor (Lee Wallace) is bullied into agreeing to pay the ransom by his ambitious Deputy Mayor (Tony Roberts) but there’s no way to get the money to the hijackers by the deadline set by Mr. Blue. Desperate, Garber tries bluffing to gain some more time by telling Mr. Blue that the money has arrived but they need more time for the money to be taken down the subway tunnels. When Mr. Blue grudgingly accepts the delay, Garber takes advantage of the extra time to figure out the hijacker’s escape route so they can be stopped. After receiving the money, the hijackers demand that the power be restored to the subway line and that all signs in the path of the train be turned to green. The police, believing that the hijackers are about to make their getaway, don’t realize how ingenious the hijackers are since they aren’t going to be on the train at all once it starts. They’ve installed a ovverride to the dead man’s switch which will allow it to continue even without a driver while they make their escape. The only thing between their escaping with a million dollars is the cynical and stubborn Garber.
Having seen the remake with Denzel Washington and John Travolta that was directed by Tony Scott and the other train movie Unstoppable with Washington and and directed by Scott, I wish I had seen this one first. Since there isn’t really much action in this movie, the main attraction of it is from the suspense that’s built up between the tensions between Mr. Blue and Garber. Having a pretty good idea of what was going to happen kind of deflated the tension that would have been there if I had started with this movie. That being said, I can still appreciate this movie and especially it’s performances across the board. Matthau is great as the world weary slightly racist train man who’s seen it all and despite his gruff exterior, he really does care about the passengers. Robert Shaw is excellent as always as the cold and ruthless Mr. Blue who doesn’t kill for pleasure, but doesn’t hesitate to do it to prove his point. With nice supporting turns from Hector Elizondo (in a role light years from his later romantic-comedy performances), Martin Balsam as the traitorous motorman who is helping the hijackers to get revenge for being fired, Lee Wallace as the weak poll dependent mayor, and some early film appearance by Jerry Stiller as Rico and Doris Roberts as the Mayor’s wife. This is a good film that offers a pretty realistic view of the politics, the people, the police, and the hijackers of New York. While that t realism makes the film better overall, it also makes it move a little slower than I would have liked.
Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
This 1080p (2.351) transfer looks pretty good for a movie from the seventies. The film has a muted color palette consisting of mostly beige and dark colors. There’s some decent detail present that can be seen in the various textures of the coats on display. For a movie that takes place in darkened subway tunnels for a good portion of the movie’s running time, the black level quality is incredibly important and I’m happy to report that it’s suitably inky and a lot darker than previous releases. You can still see the action going on but it’s a lot more solid now. This transfer still has a lot of grain present but it just adds to the seventies feel of the movie.
Audio (3 out of 5 stars)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’s DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track works but I would have preferred a more robust mix. You can either listen to it with identical left and right channels or to listen to it combined in the center channel. The dialogue is clear and understandable and most of the effects sound realistic, although some of them are lacking. Composer David Shire’s propulsive score for the movie still sounds good and it’s perfectly suited to this movie with its funky thumping drive that perfectly encapsulates this movie and provides a nice reminder of how good some seventies scores were. I love soundtracks and as soon as I heard the music start at the beginning of the movie, I knew I had found another classic. If you haven’t heard the main theme to this movie you should look online for it and enjoy it!
Special Features (1 out of 5 stars)
This movie doesn’t have any special features other than the trailer so that will hurt its final score.
Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a fun realism-tinged movie with a plot that seems somewhat mundane on the surface (hijackers take some hostages and demand money), but the way the movie is executed along with the performances makes this movie feel original especially with how it ends. Combined with David Shire’s awesome score for the movie, this movie is a winner and and easy one to recommend to others.
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