RECAP: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): Joseph Sargent

What would New York do if smart hijackers took control of one of the city’s countless subway cars? Would they pay the ransom? Would they send the troops? Would they get angry about it?  Well, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three posits all three as feasible choices.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Four professionals hijack a New York City subway car and hold its passengers for ransom for $1 million, and only a transit cop stands between them and success. 

Hero (3/10)

Transit Police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), like most New Yorkers in the 1970s, woke up on the wrong side of the bed. We meet him at his workplace taking a nap on a bench, awoken to conduct a tour of several Japanese men running Tokyo’s subway system.

It’s another boring day for Garber until Pelham One Two Three calls to inform New York that is has 18 hostages and would the city please send its hijackers $1 million in cash in one hour?

Garber assumes command of the hostage negotiations with the calm of a man who’s done so countless times. Garber is ready to accede to every hijacker demand, and he’s not concerned even after people start dying.

Suddenly, leading Japanese associates on a tour of the office isn’t the most interesting part of Garber’s day.

Garber is the man to figure out that one of the hijackers must be a former train driver, discharged recently, and he sets his men in search of those people. That’s the break in the case, of course, but it’s impressive that he has the idea.

Garber speaks with the hijackers during the one hour timeframe, while he also thinks big picture. How will they escape? Who are they? And other such questions.

The city police believe they should take the case step by step, which is exactly the worst way to operate. Always reacting to the enemy is a great way to lose. Garber knows better, and that’s why he’s able to outthink the hijackers.

Matthau brings a calmness amongst the hotheads running the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority. Much time passes before he loosens his yellow tie, the hallmark move for a stressed cop. He has all the good ideas.

Villain (5/10)

Four villains seize control of Pelham One Two Three, but the clear leader is code named Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw). Blue is the last of four hijackers to board the train. He carries a trombone case with him, inside, however, is not a trombone but a machine gun. The other guys, Messers Brown (Earl Hindman), Grey (Hector Elizondo), and Green (Martin Balsam), carry cardboard boxes; that’s how you know Blue is the boss.

Blue takes the train by pointing a gun at the conductor and telling him, “I’m taking your train.” Pretty simple. Blue oversees the driving of the train to a certain spot between stations and calls the Metropolitan Transit Authority to demand $1 million in cash delivered in one hour or he starts executing hostages. The city sends him the money. Again, pretty simple.

Blue’s plan progresses easily, and he’s convinced it will continue to do so because he brought a crossword book with him. When there’s nothing to do but wait, why not have a game? Keeps the mind occupied. Whether or not he will finish the puzzle is one of the key conflicts of the movie.

The New York bureaucrats spend most of the hour reacting to Blue’s demands, and he knows it. He has “no scruples about killing.” When a hostage asks what he’ll do if the city doesn’t do what they want, Blue says, “We are going to get what we want.” When Green wonders what the city is thinking, Blue says, “They are thinking just what we want them to think.”

Blue’s plan was a good one. He drafted Green from the ranks of “wrongly” discharged subway conductors to operate the train, and despite the success of the plan, he concedes that Green might die today. That’s the mark of a truly frightening person, one who will die for a cause, one who will kill for a cause.

Blue does kill, when his demands are not met in a timely fashion. At first, the hostages laugh at him when he threatens to shoot them. Their laughter makes the audience think he doesn’t have it in him. Later, Blue dismisses the conductor, telling him to retrieve the cash lying on the tracks. Blue executes the conductor as retaliation for cops shooting at them before.

With a set of plans for each move the city makes, Blue is clearly ahead of the authorities. He had his team wear fake mustaches that are peeled off after the hijacking. He almost got away with it, except he didn’t count on anyone at the MTA having any brains.

Action/Effects (2/10)

More heist thriller than action movie, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three still lets the bullet fly. You can’t have four guys with machine guns and not let them pop off some shots, right? Right.

Here’s the primary sequence. The $1 million demanded is in a bag and a few yards from the train, carried by two unarmed cops. One of the police snipers hiding in the tunnel gets bored or wants to be a hero or falls asleep on his trigger, and he shoots Brown in the arm.

Brown doesn’t like being shot, of course, so he sprays the tunnel with gunfire. Mr. Grey gets excited and climbs over hostages to take a turn firing at the cops, which he does.

At least she’s thinking of the children.

OK, that’s the scene. This is a hostage movie, so there’s more tension than fireworks. No problem. The movie succeeds in building tension.

Three of the four villains shoot someone, two succeed in killing them. The bagmen cops are forced to walk over two bodies in the disgusting train tunnel.

The real action is in the communications among New York’s various executive bodies. One terrific scene shows how the mayor’s decision to pay the hijackers trickles down the line.

The mayor, sick in his home, decides to pay the $1 million. The deputy mayor organizes the actual paying while contacting a police captain on the ground who contacts Garber who tells Blue that he’ll get his dirty money.

Garber constantly relays information from his command center to his top cop Rico (Jerry Stiller), the hijackers, and the city police, all the time keeping his railroad coordinator off his case. He’s trying to save lives while the guy’s worrying about running a goddamn railroad. Geez!

Sidekicks (4/8)

Here’s where to find the diamonds in the rough of the movie. Garber is a cool, no-nonsense cop, but his underlings and associates are, mostly, classic “New Yawk” nutcases.

Chief among these crazy dudes is Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi), a guy affectionately known as Fat Caz. Caz runs the Manhattan lines from a grungy office right on the tracks. When Pelham One Two Three shuts down, it causes both the subway system and Caz to go haywire. Caz starts busting balls immediately. He curses, and when someone points out that a woman now works with them, Caz, being an equal opportunity ball-buster, refuses to curb his cursing.

Caz exits his office to personal berate Pelham’s conductor. “I’m gonna have his ass,” he says, in the crabby manner endemic to all New York residents, the movies have taught me. Caz wades through the passengers walking through the tunnel after the lead car was decoupled from the other cars. Caz approaches the hijacked car and is shot to death by Grey. He has a short but memorable time onscreen.

Garber making sure his guys are on the same page.

Back at MTA headquarters, the guys on the radios describe Fat Caz as “first blood.” Another hothead at the MTA, Frank (Dick O’Neill), is pissed off today, and probably everyday. When Garber starts barking orders and commandeering equipment to foil the hijackers, Frank’s only response is rage, not at the hijacking, but at his inability to run a railroad. Goddamn it, guy’s got a job to do. People’s lives might be at stake, sure, but what’s that got to do with the railroads? Garber gives him a good shake toward the end, the only time Garber appears to get angry.

Henchmen (4/8)

Messers Green, Brown, and Grey are Blue’s backup, and all four are needed. Green drives the train, Grey menaces the hostages, and Brown keeps Grey in line. Actually, they all keep Grey in line. Grey is a loose cannon.

All we know of Grey’s past is that he was kicked out of the mob. People get kicked out of the mob? I didn’t know that was possible for someone and live to tell about it. Grey does. And he’s not living a frightened life. He drops the n-word, he entertains raping a woman he calls a “twenty buck a trick hooker,” and he boasts that he does his killing himself.

Four savvy hijackers.

For example, Grey kills Fat Caz when he approaches the stopped train. Grey warns him not to come nearer, but does not offer warning shots before spraying him with bullets. Grey enjoys the killing. It’s Grey’s inability to take orders, especially from Blue, that gets him shot by Blue.

Green was discharged by the MTA for running drugs, though he claims he’s innocent. Green is upset about killing people, but he doesn’t do anything to stop the murders.

Green’s skills are crucial to the success of the mission. He knows how to drive the train perfectly, and how to override the “dead man’s hand” technology that requires a human hand to always mash a button for the train to move. Poor guy has a cold, though, and he’s been sneezing on the radio all afternoon, prompting several “Gesundheit” blessings from Garber. Keep that in mind.

Stunts (1/6)

The best stunt is the runaway train sequence. The train loses its ability to stop, so it barrels past station after station while the passengers go nuts onboard.

All the credit to the woman who played the drunk. She sat quietly, sleeping for the entire hostage situation, until the train went out of control, when she slid along the benches.

Climax (1/6)

Once the four hijackers get off the train, they and the hostages have terrible times. First, the hostages are sent on a train that is out of control, blowing through stops and increasing speed. The drunk woman never wakes up.

Let’s get back to the hijackers. They walk to an emergency exit staircase. Blue orders the men to toss their guns. Then they trade jackets and strip off their fake mustaches. Great idea. They plan to walk into the street and into the ether, carrying a quarter-mill in their coat pockets.

Grey causes some problems. He refuses to give up his handgun. No copper is gonna bring him down without feelin’ the heat, ya dig? is about what he says, or would says if this movie came out in 1938.

Blue demands that Grey relinquish his gun, and when he doesn’t, Blue shoots him in the chest. Grey dies looking at them and in seconds. No hyper-dramatics here.

What the bad guys don’t know is that a plainclothes police officer is one of the hostages. That cop bailed from the train shortly after the hijackers, and he and his handgun are creeping toward them. When Brown steps into the tunnel, the cop shoots him in the back.

Green exits the tunnel and makes for his apartment with about a third of a million dollars. Meanwhile, Blue steps into the tunnel. He’s not a man to back down from anyone. Despite being a few yards from freedom, Blue decides to trade shots with the cop. Being a crack shot and former mercenary, Blue kills the cop with a couple of shots.

What’s Garber up to? Well, he decides to leave the command center and get on the ground. He rides with the chief of police across Manhattan’s cleared streets. Garber figures out that the hijackers are not on the train, and that they’ve discovered a way to operate the train by circumventing the “dead man’s hand” feature. How they did so he doesn’t know, but he know’s they did it.

Garber arrives at the emergency exit Green used moments before and descends, alone, to the tunnel. He finds Blue standing over Brown’s body. Blue offers a tidy bribe of a quarter-million, which Garber rejects.

That’s when Blue does a curious thing. He asks Garber if the state of New York still electrocutes people. He decides to do it himself. Blue touches a foot to the track and commits suicide with a tremendous smoking effect on Shaw.

Suh-mokin’!

Well, that’s not entirely the finish, because we get 10 minutes of investigating tacked onto the end of this tense hostage movie. Garber, and his partner Rico, have to catch Green. Rico is the man of the moment. He compiles a list of guys discharged from the MTA in the last five years and whittles the initial list of 78 to nine men. He and Garber visit them all.

After eliminating a few, they reach Green’s apartment, of course. Green, who was rolling on his pile of money, shoves it into his oven. The cops enter the apartment, and stye play the dance of the unsuspiciously suspicious.

Garber and Rico, having a rough day, are all set to leave. Then Green gives himself up. He sneezes. Garber, reopens the door and gives an all time great “gotcha” look.

That’s a FACE.

Jokes (2/4)

When Blue and Garber finally meet, Blue tries to bribe Garber. How’s a quarter million bucks sound? Garber tells Blue that his accountant says, “I’ve accepted enough this fiscal quarter.” Good line.

Also, there’s a drunk woman who sleeps throughout the hijacking, even the high-speed runaway train part, and only wakes after it screeches to a halt.

Setting (0/4)

I imagine the underground of cities to be the dirtiest, scariest, most objectionable places. This movie didn’t sway me from that belief. The track beneath Manhattan is less dirty than I pictured a 1970s New York City location to be. I didn’t see much garbage and no rats, which proves they shot the movie on a set, right?

Commentary (1/2)

“We’re trying to run a city, not a democracy.” That’s the mayor of New York complaining about the hostage crisis and its impact on his poll numbers. Little to no mention of the lives that might be lost, except how they’ll impact his re-election campaign.

Those who have jobs helping the city operate are amazing in their ability to dissociate themselves from the crisis. Maybe crisis is the baseline for living in New York. Or, maybe, the city runs itself despite the efforts of these bozos.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

An egregious use of the n-word probably made many audience members uneasy in 1974. Today it sounds much worse.

Others

  • New York’s media learned of the hijacking in less than 15 minutes.

Summary (22/68): 32%

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three packs plenty of active characters into its 90 minutes. With a deadline of one hour, the movie almost plays in real time, quite a feat for a movie to achieve.

All the actors are solid, and while the villains aren’t as brutal or scary as could be, they are efficient and determined, which should frighten just as much. They kill as a means to an end, not for the pleasure of it.