Four men board a New York subway train before revealing automatic rifles and taking the passengers hostage. Their leader (Robert Shaw) demands a one million dollar ransom, to be delivered within one hour. At the other end of the radio line, a transit police chief (Walter Matthau) fights against time, city hall, and even his own colleagues to keep the passengers alive.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a slickly produced and wonderfully effective mid-70s thriller directed by Joseph Sargent. It is not a film that wastes time: it is, essentially, all plot. Characters are revealed efficiently through action rather than words, and backstory only exists where it dictates behaviour. It is a film that lives in the moment, playing out in a close approximation of real-time. The stakes are well-defined and realistically staged. The actors’ performances are rock-solid.
It is a film particular to its time. Based on a popular novel by John Godey (Morton Freedgood), it captures the New York of the early 1970s with an almost satirical effect: rising crime, ineffective leadership, and a struggling economy close to crisis point. It was also released during a period of aeroplane hijackings, with the world experiencing an unprecedented 326 hijack attempts between 1968 and 1972 alone. A film in which it is a commuter train that is hijacked is a clever variation on a theme.
Robert Shaw contributes another strong, menacing performance here as the anonymous “Mr Blue”, who masterminds and leads the hijacking attempt. Wedged career-wise between The Sting (1973) and Jaws (1975), it is another excellent and show-stealing role for him, which he delivers marvellously.
A greater surprise for modern viewers is Walter Matthau’s calm, personable turn as transit police chief Zachary Garber. Anyone familiar with Matthau’s later career will know him for his numerous comedies – seeing him perform a dramatic role is a genuinely pleasant experience. On a similar level, future Seinfeld supporting actor Jerry Stiller is nicely effective here as Rico Patrone – a transit lieutenant who works for Garber. It is a all-round excellent supporting cast, including the likes of Hector Elizondo, Martin Balsam, and Tony Roberts among others.
Sargent delivers a film that balances drama, tension, and levity extremely well. The humour is a regular light touch that entertains, while the action-thriller components stay tense and believable. It is well-paced, even by the accelerated standards of the 21st century. Backing the action is a truly exceptional musical score by David Shire. Heavily on horns and keyboards, it is driven by aggressive percussion and keeps the suspense high as it plays over the action.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a slickly-produced, efficient thriller that represents American commercial cinema at its best. It is in essence a flawless film: you could improve bits and pieces perhaps, but there is nothing in the film that doesn’t work. Everything is solidly enjoyable at the least and stunning at its very best. The film has been remade twice – once for television and once by director Tony Scott – but nothing beats the original film. It’s a treasure.