When you're going to see a movie about a train heist, you don't necessarily expect the film's chief virtue to be settings and characters so astonishing they go beyond credible to absolutely wonderful. But that's what you get with 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. A gang of four men taking a subway train car full of passengers hostage is a good plot but the film gathers force long before that by introducing the ornery menagerie of New York citizens and train staff. This combines with the robbers' threats and establishes a captivating, real sense of threat.
How the hell did anything get done in 1970s New York? The contrast was particularly potent for me because I've been riding trains in Japan for about a month now. The trains are always clean and the passengers almost all observe strict etiquette--no-one talks to each other, no-one talks on their cell phones, people keep their bags on their laps so they don't take up too much room on the seats, and extra seats are always set aside for the elderly, people with heart conditions, and pregnant women. Pelham One Two Three is a riot of grime, a can of noisy hookers, flushed drunks, and generally obnoxious citizens.
Walter Matthau stars as Garber, a Transit Authority police lieutenant, who does most of the negotiating with the leader of the hijackers, "Mr. Blue", an Englishman played by Robert Shaw. We're introduced to the inner workings of the Transit headquarters when Garber gives a tour to, of all people, a group of administrators from Tokyo's train system. No time is really spent comparing the two administrations but the scene is a fascinating glimpse into a world long before computers handled everything. A world of flashing dials and wall maps with colour push pins.
Can you imagine all the skill and instinct that doesn't exist anymore?
Matthau is brilliantly cast, coming off as both blue collar and cagey enough to be a good leader. Subordinates played by Jerry Stiller and Dick O'Neill are just as terrific.
One supervisor, Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi), takes the cake, though, whose increasing incredulity that a train seems to be stopping and losing a car and even moving backward is brilliant. Of course he marches right down on the tracks to the hijacked train to give these guys a piece of his mind despite warnings from the cops. Talk about a guy not ready to grasp a situation.
There was a way of shooting movies in New York in the 70s and 80s, movies like Taxi Driver, Manhattan, Stripes, or even Ghostbusters, we just don't have anymore. Cities in American movies always seem to be a thin Hollywood fantasy version of cities, never populated by people who feel real. It's a shame because it's everything that makes a movie like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three so amazing.
Twitter Sonnet #1346
A sea of fish replaced the land of men.
The market weighed the oranges 'gainst the lime.
A better sword could beat the fountain pen.
A stranded beak required only time.
The dusty star returned to planets full.
In baggage damp with spinning thoughts it washed.
The time would come to thank the hunting bull.
A thought occurred a second 'fore 'twas squashed.
The leading car contained a continent.
Above the stash, a mouth requests a bill.
For any face the cash is pertinent.
The crowd combined to write another will.
A patient train delivered cops and tracks.
The dollars rest on quarter robber backs.