Movie still from 1974's "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three."

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three June 16, 2017        

Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) is as effective in installing hyperreal naturalism as Dynasty (1981-1989) is in executing catty showdowns — of all the realism-infused crime thrillers of the era, it is among the most persuasive and likable. 

 

What I like most about it is the way its storyline is distinctly cinematic, verging on pulp theatricality, but is dealt with by its ensemble as a crick in a neck comprised of everyday predictability. As boasted about on its breathless poster, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three revolves around four armed men (Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Héctor Elizondo, and Earl Hindman) who board a southbound six train at various stops, take 17 passengers and a conductor hostage, and demand one million dollars within the hour, a pawn killed every minute the cash is late. 

 

Hear that scheme and you’re left dumbfounded by its audacity — and so are the people who are forced to grapple with it. The men left to deal with the demands of the antagonists are not “hero” heroes but doughy middle-aged men we suspect have never come across something so drastic in all their years of working. They work under the New York City Transit Police Department, and they’re as worn-out, crabby, and sardonic as we’d expect them to be. These are men who’ve perhaps never even left the city, who probably live in meager apartments with the wives they married shortly after high school, and who would likely much rather fill out paperwork than be confronted by terrorism.  

 

And that’s part of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’s fun — an unfathomably scary situation is met with a lot of wisecracks, a lot of disbelief, and a lot of eye-rolling. Much of that is thrown around by the film’s lead, Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), who is a manifestation of wise-assery and disillusionment. 

 

Things do eventually take a turn for the grave when the promises of the movie’s central foes end up being true, but the feature maintains a perfectly rendered tug-of-war between run-of-the-mill villainy and the hardened attitudes that come along with working a tiring white collar job from nine to five every day.

 

The movie wears realism well, encapsulating the pessimistic nature of the Big Apple circa 1974, and puts forth characters we come to like almost instantaneously.  The plot is high-wire and sweaty, sure. But we leave The Taking of Pelham One Two Three remembering how well it captures police work and how real its characters come across on the screen.  And because most movies usually leave the memory just days after it initially enters it, that cannot be taken lightly.  A-

DIRECTED BY

Joseph Sargent

 

STARRING

Walter Matthau

Robert Shaw

Martin Balsam

Héctor Elizondo

Earl Hindman

Lee Wallace

Tony Roberts

Doris Roberts

Jerry Stiller

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1974

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 42 Mins.

F

orget your melodramatically tough action heroes who seem to be made of little else besides muscle, grease, and an unfailing one-liner generator. From John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), the 1970s proved, without fail, that protagonists of the everyday are much more appealing than your favorite cinematic archetypes.