The Taking of Pelham One Two Three starts with a bang. A bombastic big band track spits plosively over the alliterational legend, Palomar Pictures and Palladium Productions present, like it’s spraying the very words at you. Then, in a military stencil font, the title appears –
THE TAKING OF PELHAM
– and that arrangement of text is the sole concession to overt styling to be had in the entire hour and three quarters to come. Instead, we have quality. Yet from the off it’s quality without flashiness. In mundane fashion we are introduced to the most familiar city on the planet, because all it takes is a street full of yellow taxis to establish New York; and during the gradual congregation of villains upon their target, an early morning subway train, we look in on the familiar, dull procedures of running a route into a rut – until this regularity becomes murderously irregular. Although nobody knows it, not yet.
Enter Walter Matthau as Lieutenant Zachary Garber, New York Transit Authority Police – sleeping with his mouth open. He’s woken up to provide a tour to the visiting Directors of the Tokyo subway system, quickly establishing himself as one of many white men typical of his time in being a bit close-minded when it comes to either black people, foreigners or women – not a bad man, just an ordinary one, surrounded by others on all sides. Meanwhile four more or less really bad men – sneezing Mr. Green, stuttering Mr. Brown, unstable Mr. Grey, and Robert Frost as their icy leader Mr. Blue – take a train at gunpoint, block off the subway with it and keep eighteen passengers hostage. As the entire system grinds to a halt they finally make their demands: one million dollars, cash; one hour, deadline; one passenger, murdered every minute the delivery is overdue. The only questions are, one: will the city pay? and two: how on earth – under the earth – are the hijackers possibly going to get away?
…and that’s it. The set up is straightforward, understated and as high concept as modern Hollywood could hope for. The script crackles with earthy humour and moments of real tension, with that key issue of an impossible escape hanging over it all. The characters are vivid, flawed, humanly authentic – in fact, the only thing over the top is the pounding mix of military rhythms and fat horns cutting in over the action when the mood takes it. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of the true greats, an artifact of a time when films could be different from each other and still be granted an audience; a distinctive heist yarn with an absolute, solid gold, classic of an ending. The last thing it needs is a remake according to the current philosophy of film – but that’s what it has got. So tonight I’m going to swallow my pride, choke back the bile, and go find out what the third millennium has to say on the subject of excellence in film making.