70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, Psycho-sexual machinations, and ‘the self loathing whore

PART ONE:


The early seventies witnessed a fertile moment in film-making that reflected a uniquely framed vision of sexual exploration and an ever changing measurement of morality. The studios too were taking more risks with their films conveying realism. What developed on screen was an explosion of symbolic portrayals featuring sex and violence and explicit imagery for American audiences to process. With the arrival of the women’s movement during the mid sixties through the seventies, until it was killed off in the eighties by Reagenism, these films did not push forward an evolved perspective or positive representation of women. Often the suggestion of women’s sexual freedom was portrayed as demeaning and counter-productive to women’s empowerment. As feminist theorist and critic Molly Haskell writes “the ten years from 1963 to 1973 have been the most disheartening in screen history.”

Conversely men were portrayed as rogue outsiders and anti heroes not unlike noir figures but pushing the envelope with a hyper violent masculinity often without the usual fatalistic culmination of judgement and universal law that bound their destiny. When they die, it is their decision, they are in a dance with death, it is not an unmitigated penalty for breaking the rules. In particular these themes are seen within the suspense-thriller.

The seventies offered a gritty, stylized world that enhanced and synthesized focus on the dark underbelly of society, cultural unrest, paranoia, masochism, neurosis and psycho-sexual wiles. From American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations — Movies and the Exploitation of Excess by Mia Mask “Women Take Center Stage: Klute and McCabe & Mrs. Miller- “For feminist critics and scholars, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute perfectly exemplifies this period’s ambivalence toward women, particularly in regard to its prostitute-heroine Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). The film recasts and updates conventions of classic film noir by centralizing the investigatory/confessional pattern while making sexuality figure more obviously in the narrative.”

Klute (1971)

One man is missing. Two girls lie dead. …and someone breathing on the other end of the phone.

You’d never take her for a call girl. You’d never take him for a cop.

“There are little corners of everyone that are better left alone.”

Klute (1971) directed by Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View 1974, All the President’s Men 1976, producer To Kill a Mockingbird 1962, Love with the Proper Stranger, , Up the Down Staircase and director of Sophie’s Choice 1982) written by brothers Andy Lewis and Dave Lewis who mainly wrote for television drama series. Cinematography by Gordon Willis nicknamed The Prince of Darkness (The Landlord 1970, The Godfather 1972, The Godfather II 1974, The Paper Chase 1973, Annie Hall 1977).

Pakula on Willis and setting up the framing of the cinematography- “From the visual point of view, I wanted Klute to be a vertical film. And with Gordon Willis, the director of photography, I tried to go against the horizontal format of Panavision, by seeking out verticals. Horizontals open out, create a pastoral feeling, and I wanted tension. Bree’s apartment should have been seen as if at the end of a long tunnel. I framed a lot of shots with the back of another character in front, to mask a part of the screen, or made use of other sombre surfaces as masks, in order to create this feeling of claustrophobia which reflects the life of this girl.” – from 1972

The evocative score adds to the illusory tension and arresting mood of the film. The music is written by Michael Small (The Stepford Wives 1975, Night Moves 1975, Marathon Man 1976, Audrey Rose 1977, The Postman Always Rings Twice 1981, Black Widow 1987). Small’s haunting lullaby blankets the film in a pensive swaddle, with the uneasy tinkling of a piano like a childlike music box and vocalizations. The score awakens a voyeuristic ambience as if someones is watching, which they are– throughout the entire film.

“New York City as a site of, and metaphor for, the extremes of urban existence.

It places them in film history, New York City history, and U.S. urban history more generally, finding that they offer an update on earlier century narratives of the connections between urban areas and deviant sexuality. In this modern version, it is not just a moral tale but also an economic one, where, because of the historical decline of the U.S.city and of New York in particular,sex work becomes a plausible, if unsettling means of support.These films find both narrative and spatial terms for advancing the contemporary anti-urban narrative, envisioning New York as an impinging vertical space and seeing possible redemption only in the protagonists leaving the city.” From Stanley Corkin’s Sex and the City in Decline: Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Klute (1971)-Journal of Urban History

The film stars Jane Fonda (who was coming off playing ingenues in Barefoot in the Park and Barbarella when she had her breakthrough performance in Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 1969) as call-girl Bree Daniels with a complex inner life, Donald Sutherland as the quiet spectator detective John Klute, Charles Cioffi as psycho Peter Cable, Roy Scheider as pimp Frank Ligourin, Dorothy Tristan as Arlyn Page, Rita Gam as Trina Gruneman, Vivian Nathan as the psychotherapist, Morris Strassberg as Mr. Goldfarb, the nice old Jewish john who works in the garment district, and Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers 1969) as Mama Reese. With appearances by Jean Stapleton as Mr. Goldfarb’s secretary, Richard Jordan as the young man who kisses Jane Fonda in the bar scene, porn star Harry Reems at the Discothèque and Candy Darling. 

The film brings into play various traditions of film noir as it lays out the search for the missing Gruneman and emphasizes the relationship between the cop and the call girl.

Klute was nominated for two academy awards, best actress and best screenplay, with Jane Fonda winning the Oscar.

From Mark Harris “menace seems to choke every frame, contains almost no violence at all”

The use of tape recorders as visually recurring iconography “finally deployed as a monstrous psychological weapon at the film’s climax.”

“When Alan J. Pakula began preparing for the production of Klute (1971), he screened a lot of Alfred Hitchcock films…{…} instead he came away dispirited at the thought that he was about to make might contradict one of Hitchcock’s central principles: “You don’t try to do a character study in a melodrama” Pakula said. “Klute, of course, is a violation of that.”

Klute features Donald Sutherland as the film’s protagonist John Klute, a Tuscarora Pennsylvania private investigator hired to locate a friend Tom Gruneman who has vanished in New York City and may be living a double life. Obscene letters to a NYC prostitute have been uncovered in his desk at work “written by a very disturbed man”. Gruneman went missing six months prior and John Klute offers to leave his suburban shelter to investigate in the big bad city. The trail leads Klute to a complicated and seductive New York call girl Bree Daniels an “emotionally introspective” prostitute (skillfully brought out by Jane Fonda). Bree is an unwitting connection to a brutal murder and Klute becomes her paternalistic protector/lover. Bree is shut off from her feelings, driven by her instincts of suspicion, ambivalence and low-self esteem. “I wish I was faceless and body-less and be left alone.”

Bree is a complex character who seeks to emotionally remove herself from society through the flawed principle that she is in control of her life and her body. Frequenting a psychotherapist, going on modeling cattle-calls, (similarly she is peddling her flesh, though legally and publicly) studying acting, smoking grass, and reading books like Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, a primer of the seventies metaphysical movement. Living in her own private world of her Manhattan apartment with her calico cat, Bree surrounds herself with the only space that truly insulates and isolates her from the vicious and people-eating world. A world of sin, glitter and wickedness. A world of voyeurs.

Klute watches as well as listens to Bree’s conversations recording equipment to tap her phone from his little dank room as one of her voyeurs. She tells him “go get those tapes and we’ll have a party.”

“Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie. You could get a perfectly good dishwasher for that.”

She also admits to him that she’s in the midst of paranoia “I’m afraid of the dark, it’s just nerves I’m a nervous broad.” But this is not paranoia, the fear is real… everyone is watching everyone else.

He watches her when she visits the old Jewish widow where Bree dresses like a cabaret singer, regaling the gentle Mr. Goldfarb of her nights in Cannes with a sophisticated older man not unlike himself. She tells Klute he never lays a hand on her. Klute’s silent, morally superior, unemotional manner seems to provoke Bree’s animosity toward family type men and uptight provincial.

“What’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? Are you a talker? A button freak? Maybe you like to get your chest walked around with high heeled shoes. Or make ’em watch you tinkle. Or maybe you get off wearing women’s clothes. Goddamned hypocrite squares!” When he asks her about the john who tried to kill her and beat her up, “he wasn’t kidding, usually it’s a fake out.”

She shrugs Klute off, “Look, will you please just try to get it from my side? A year ago I was in the life full time. I was living on Park Avenue. It was a very nice apartment, leather furniture… and then the cops dropped on me, they caged me. They started asking me about a guy, some guy, that I’m supposed to have seen a year before that. Two years ago! He could be in Yemen. Gruneman… what does that mean? It’s a name! I don’t know him! And they start showing me these pictures, and they don’t mean anything to me. And then they started asking me if I’ve been getting letters from some guy out in Cabbageville.”

After Bree comes down to Klute’s little room in her pajamas and they have sex, she mocks him “Don’t feel bad about losing your virtue. I sort of knew you would. Everybody always does.” Once Bree starts to feel some kind of emotion toward Klute, she feels the need to destroy it, she had more control with her tricks.

During her various appointments with her shrink, Bree asks her “why do I still want to trick?” Her therapist becomes more forceful explaining that she can’t just fix Bree, telling her she has “no magic potion.”  “Cause when you’re a call girl you can control it. They want a woman and I know I’m good… And for an hour… for an hour, I’m the best actress in the world, and the best fuck in the world.” “Why do you say you’re the best actress in the world.” “Well, because it’s an act.”

There is a bit of not only a slight intrusion of a laugh, in the midst of all the darkness, when Bree is in bed with a john and she’s doing an acting job as if he’s turning her on while he’s on top of her, she coos for him- “Oh my angel! Oh my angel!” looking over his shoulder at her watch… It’s telling of how Bree can cut herself off from being a sex-worker and the men she is with, and how she aspires to be an actress and basically how many women may feel while they are having sex they feel nothing. Bree is great at role playing believes there is nothing wrong with it morally and doesn’t enjoy it physically.

Bree- “You don’t have to feel anything, care for anybody, just lead them by the ring in their nose. In the direction that they think they want to go in. Get a lot of money out of them in as short of period of time as possible. And you control it, and you call the shots, and I always feel just great afterwards.”

Therapist- “And you enjoyed it?” 

Bree- “No”

Therapist- “Why not? You said there’s nothing wrong with it. Why not?”

Bree- “Well there’s a difference. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it morally, I didn’t enjoy it physically. I came to enjoy it because it made me feel good. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It made me feel like I had some control over myself that I had some control over my life. That I could determine things for myself.”

We learn about Bree’s impressions of the world, her motivations and hints at past trauma through the scenes involving sessions with her therapist (Vivian Nathan). As a neo-noir film, it follows that the heroine experiences alienation and is punished for her female sexuality and excesses. Even as the film opens depicting a scene at a ‘family’ dinner, the intrusion of Bree’s lifestyle shows the downfall and breakdown of the American family. Invading bourgeois landscape, we see the tableau of desperate junkies, disco dives, the pimp’s flat, — all decadent and corrupt secret underworlds of the city, damned for it’s self-indulgence, materialism and perverted gratifications.

In some ways there are certain divergences from the noir traditions of the 1940s. There is a linear movement in the narrative with the hero retaining control of the events, in contrast to the revolving story, reversals and breaks in the plot. In terms of the investigation and the heroine’s sexuality, Bree’s place is different within the story, she is not the catalyst of Tom Gruneman’s fate she is the signpost to discovering his outcome. Therefore the relationship between John Klute and Bree is very different from what is usually the case in classic film noir. In this way Pakula explores the potential of the genre through a contemporary lens. “The metaphoric power of noir conventions is brought into more conscious play” (Gledhill)

Another consideration of Pakula’s film depicting a feminist backlash is how the women are positioned as ‘objects’ and physical products, emblematic not only by the scenes where Bree is selling her body, but where she sits in a line-up with other beautiful women waiting to be chosen for a modeling job. The agency executives heads are cut off in the scene which accentuates the human disconnection and impersonal enterprise of being picked for profitability and worth. Each one scanned then dismissed because of their perceived faults, both models and prostitutes symbolize the fetishization of desirability and society’s measurement of a woman’s value. If dissecting the film’s symbology more closely there are carefully placed clues as suggested by Judith Gustafson who observes the images behind the models impersonal scrutiny and the wall photos behind them of a face dotted in silver like ‘bullet holes’ on either side depicted by the identical image yet in negative that makes the female face appear as an ‘alien being.’

“Has anybody talked to you about the financial arrangements? Well that depends naturally on how long you want me for, and what you want to do. I know you, it will be very nice. Well I’d like to spend the evening with you if its, if you’d like that. Have you ever done it with a woman before, paying her? Do you like it? I mean I have the feeling that that turns you on very particularly. What turns me on is because I have a good imagination, and I like pleasing. Do you mind if I take my sweater off. Well I think in the confines of one’s house one should be free of clothing and inhibitions. Oh inhibitions are nice, cause its always to nice to overcome. Don’t be afraid, I’m not. As long as you don’t hurt me, more than I like to be hurt. I will do anything you ask. You should never be ashamed of things like that. I mean you mustn’t be. You know there’s nothing wrong. Nothing. Nothing is wrong. I think the only way that any of us can ever be happy is to, is to let it all hang out ya know. Do it all and fuck it!”

When Klute meets Bree she toys with him, flaunting her independence and manifesting a casual attitude about his investigation. Her self aligned liberation dictates contempt for convention and criticism. Hard-edged Bree enjoys her freedom though she is seduced by the need to pick up the phone and maintain her high-class status as a pimp free call girl. Roy Scheider plays her old predatory pimp Frank Ligourin who flashes his Italian silk shirts and his Mephistophelean smile. Ligourin and call-girl Janie McKenna who was jealous of Bree are the ones responsible for sending Bree to the psycho john who beat her up. “put the freak onto Bree.”

Though it’s not what drives the story, in the darkened halls of the film is the sadistic degenerate Peter Cable ( first time actor Charles Cioffi), affluent businessman and friend and associate of the missing Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli) and detective John Klute.

Cable is a psychopathic misogynist who obsessively listens to his secret recordings of his exploits with Bree. He begins stalking her, suspecting that she may reveal his identity as the perverted John who beat her up and murdered her friend Janie and eventually kills another prostitute, a strung out junkie Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan).

“Make a man think that he’s accepted. It’s all a great big game to you. I mean, you’re all obviously too lazy and too warped to do anything meaningful with your lives so you prey upon the sexual fantasies of others. I’m sure it comes as no great surprise to you when I say that there are little corners in everyone which were better off left alone; sicknesses, weaknesses, which-which should never be exposed. But… that’s your stock in trade, isn’t it – a man’s weakness? And I was never really fully aware of mine… until you brought them out.”

Pretty much into the beginning of the picture we know who the killer is. The plot-line is more focused on the journey and relationship/character study of silent John Klute and turbulent Bree Daniels, and drawing the killer out into the open. It is the examination of the darker side of human nature, collective disorder and the undercurrent of psycho-sexual machinations as one of the central points to the film.

According to Joan Mellen not only is Klute a study in female sexuality, villain Peter Cable is the “projection of Bree’s self-contempt — a materialization of her fear of the dark.” Though the film presents an atmosphere of paranoia the threat is very real. Cable is “he also represents what she believes she deserves, the all destroying punisher who will make her pay for having bartered herself so cheaply.”

Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels is shown in her room as Willis’ camera pulls back it informs us that she is afraid of the phone ringing and the menacing breather on the other end. This is when John Klute first shows up. There is an interesting correlation with the two men, cop and killer. 

The idea that this film is feminist in nature because of the sexual freedom of it’s central character is best challenged by feminist scholar Christine Gledhill. “The ideological project surrounding this version of the independent woman stereotype is the same as when it emerged in the 1890s under the guise of the New Woman… However fascinating, different, admirable the would-be-emancipated woman, struggling to assert her own identity in a male world, and professing a new, nonrepressive sexual morality, in the end she is really neurotic, fragile, lonely and unhappy.”

Critic Pauline Kael had a much different experience of the film upon its initial release, she called Bree Daniels “one of the strongest feminine characters to reach the screen” though Fonda’s brilliant performance creates a complexity worthy of analysis, in the end, she is still an object of male fantasy.

While the film’s critics focus mainly on feminist shortcomings there is also the understanding by some that it also shines a lens on masculinity. Klute “lacks dynamism” “sexless” and “out of place” perhaps or virtual psychopaths, and castrated males. Perhaps a commentary on men’s sweeping fear of the women’s movement and the transformations of femininity and masculinity. Also an interesting observation by Mia Mask is how the protagonist John Klute and psychopath Peter Cable though essentially an antithesis of each other’s persona’s there is an element of a ‘doppelgänger motif’. Diane Giddis points at the the threat of Cable, Bree’s potential killer can be seen as the incarnation of the emotional danger she feels threatened by with the emergence of John Klute. From the beginning of the film, “the two men are almost always shown in juxtaposition.” The morning after Bree gets the eerie ‘breather’ phone call from her stalker, Klute appears at her door.

“Like Cable, Klute appears uninvited at her door. He, too, spies on her through windows and from archways. He, too, violates the privacy of her telephone by secretly recording her calls, just as Cable secretly records his session with her. The film even emphasized these parallels by showing the men in similar shots…{…} Ultimately Klute and Cable are two sides of the same male personality. One side punishes women for their sexuality and power plays; the other neutralizes the threat by inviting child-like dependence.” –Judith Gustafson from Cineaste (1981) The Whore with the Heart of Gold

At the time of Klute’s release it gave the appearance as not only a straight suspense story but that of a radical film, filled with contradictions between what feminist critics would say is artifice and what represents women in real situations. Within this ‘new American cinema’ the film purports to be about a ‘liberated’ heroine inhabiting the structure of a thriller with an homage to the femme fatales of film noir. The contradictory implications lie between the film’s ‘modernity’, psychotherapy and the problem of women places it within a humanist realist tradition of European art cinema’ (Gledhill). Yet it also bares the stylistic qualities –a highly detailed visual polish and ‘baroque stereotypes’ in noir thrillers, an atmosphere predominately summoned by American films of the seventies. “The real world and fictional production” Gledhill asserts that stems from the Women’s Movement rather than studies in film theory. The idea of realism and genre are in total opposition with each other. Klute presents as an independent heroine yet each frame reveals the attack on Bree’s free will.

“While realism embraces such cultural values as ‘real life’, truth or credibility, genre production holds negative connotations such as ‘illusion’, ‘myth’, ‘conventionality’, ‘stereotypes’. The Hollywood genres represent the fictional elaboration of a patriarchal culture which produces macho heroes and a subordinate, demeaning and objectified place for women.”

And beyond the constructs of film noir, seventies thriller genre and criticism by feminist theorists of Pakula’s Klute, Bree Daniel’s conflicts are a universal struggle for women ‘the assertion of love vs the affirmation of self-determination. Bree’s uneasy self reflection makes the perspective of a movie prostitute as a breakthrough characterization. She isn’t a tragic figure nor is she weak nor contemptible. Bree explores her compulsion and potential self destructive behavior as a sex worker as an externalized symptom stemming from past mental and internalized physical injury and she strives to uncover the answers in her own way.

Pakula re-invents some of the noir traditions and places them within an examination of the modern world. With his masterful film, he strives not only for visual ecstasy, the dramatic flourish of the thriller genre and though there has been acute dissection of his film, he seeks to the divulge a truth that becomes a revelation of acting by Jane Fonda.

In a 2019 interview with Jane Fonda conducted by Illeana Douglas, Fonda refers to Alan J. Pakula whom she worked in subsequent films, Comes a Horseman and Rollover, as a “still director.” “He allowed time for things to happen.” Jane Fonda explains that she loves films from the seventies because there was time left for things to happen. “more silence, than words.”

During the rehearsal for Klute Jane Fonda in order to prepare for her role as Bree Daniels, arranged to spend a lot of time with call-girls, streetwalkers and madams. Prostitutes on the bottom rung, strung out from the underbelly of the city and very wealthy madams, whom Fonda said made it clear the more money the client the weirder the sexual appetites and fantasies. She also talked about her decade living in France where she got to know the legendary Madam Claude, famous for taking beautiful women and molding them into high price call girls. Jane Fonda got to know many of them. Many she met were tough, often sexually aggressive she she said, and also sexually confident. She had learned that often they were the survivors of sexual abuse. What she referred having their ‘agency taken away’. These women inspired Fonda to model Bree after them. This is why Fonda’s performance pivots so well from self-confidence to vulnerability.

Illeana Douglas compliments Fonda by telling her that there’s “something going on in your eyes” which made Fonda recall that acting instructor Lee Strasberg had told her the very same thing in his class, that something was going on in her eyes that made him think that more is going on.

Fonda also had what she calls a ‘hair epiphany’. She had just come off filming cult sensation directed by husband, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella where she had all those blonde waves. Her friend hairdresser Paul MacGregor who lived in the village worked on what is now her iconic hair style from Klute.

Jane Fonda worried that as a white privileged middle class actress couldn’t possibly bring to life a prostitute and make it believable. She insisted to her director Alan J. Pakula that he hire Faye Dunaway instead. Pakula burst out laughing.

Jane Fonda was allowed to add a lot of her own insight into the character of Bree, little details and director Pakula often took them as excellent suggestions that worked well with the story. For instance, it was Fonda’s idea to live in the apartment for weeks. She lay there at night as if she were Bree trying to get inside Bree’s head and summon up the things she would do within her private time. We don’t know the backstory behind Bree Daniels many permutations. We are only to privy to hints of the damage.

Jane Fonda conceptualized many of the set’s subtleties. What would Bree read, what would adorn her little space. She thought of having a cat, because cats symbolize independence and Fonda imagined that Bree’s persona wanted a companion that would be more like herself. In many ways, Jane Fonda dressed the set with these little introspective details. The film became a very personal experience for her. And one that initiated her feminist transformation. Even when she was smoking the spliff in her apartment, it wasn’t in the script but she spontaneously began to sing that little hymn, it was very natural and emphasized how real her character was. Fonda tells of how this was a very spontaneous improvisation as a plot detail that was not in the script but struck her at the moment.

Illeana Douglas also astutely pointed out that there was a lot of glamour to the film. There were moments where Klute was framed with close ups of Bree. Even with the evocative Cymbalon melody – the Klezmer (traditional Eastern European Jewish music) movement that guides the scene it reminds of the languid strut of Marlene Dietrich, the allure of Greta Garbo and had the flavor of night club singers in Paris and Germany. When I watched the incredibly thoughtful and in-depth interview it hit me how much that was true. I saw it as clear as day, that Jane Fonda’s aura did truly give off that mystique that essence of glamour of the great actresses’ personae. Superb fashion and costume designer Ann Roth chose the alluring dress that Bree wears when she visits the old man, Mr. Goldfarb. 

Jane Fonda also points out that Bree could have been a great actress but within her craft something would have triggered her to return to selling her body, which is a violation to the soul, and it’s very different than acting, as it comes from a deep place of trauma and the need to control and not open up her heart.

[voiceover] “I have no idea what’s going to happen. I… I just can’t stay in this city, you know? Maybe I’ll come back. You’ll probably see me next week.”

 

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

 

1:23pm. Grand Central Station, New York. A packed commuter train is hijacked. A ransom is set – at one million dollars. The subway is a closed system. For the four hijackers, surely there is no way out. But they have a deadly plan.

Directed by Joseph Sargent  (Colossus: The Forbin Project 1970, White Lightning 1973, predominantly a director for television series and made for TV movies- Gunsmoke, The Fugitive, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, The Invaders) with a screenplay by Peter Stone (known writer Charade 1963, Father Goose 1963, Sweet Charity 1969) The iconic sneeze which leads to one of the most memorable endings in 70s films was actually conceptualized by Stone. And based on the best selling American crime novel by John Godey.

Stunning visual auteur and cinematographer  Owen Roizman (The French Connection 1971, The Exorcist 1973, The Stepford Wives 1975, Three Days of the Condor 1975, Network 1976, True Confessions 1981) and driving score by David Shire (The Conversation 1974, All the President’s Men 1976, Saturday Night Fever 1977, Norma Rae 1979). Like the score the film itself begins with the sense of a dialogue and characterizations just as accelerated as a runaway train. The initial part of the film is completely immersed underground with it’s murky greens, grays and shadows lit only by the subway lamps.

Director Joseph Sargent instructed Owen Roizman to shoot the picture in Wide Screen, which would create the effect of not having a high ceiling, the over head and bottom of the screen being cut off giving the film a more of the closeness and claustrophobia of being in a subway car. They filmed the picture at The Spike in Brooklyn which was totally closed off at the time. Director Sargent referred to it as “hell on earth” and actor Robert Shaw dubbed it “Dante’s Inferno.” Like The French Connection and 3 Days of the Condor also filmed by Roizman, these were films that were at a defining time in history portraying a gritty New York lensed with a perspective toward realism. The camera’s were lightweight, moved quickly through the streets and utilized natural lighting. The colors are muted browns, faded greens and grays. The film demonstrates alienation of the city and the urban nightmare.

One of the films from the seventies that utilizes the subway as a symbol of the ‘changing nature of the city partly from the perspective of it’s citizens primarily it’s commuters.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) is one of the most definitive films of the seventies that features an all star cast of great character actors with standout performances by Walter Matthau as Lt. Zachary Garber, Tom Pedi as Caz Dolowicz who only gives a damn about his trains running on time.

“Oh, come on. If I’ve got to watch my language just because they let a few broads in, I’m going to quit. How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?”

James Broderick as Denny Doyle head motorman, Dick O’Neill as the foul mouthed Correll, Jerry Stiller as Lt. Rico Patrone, Rudy Bond as Police Commissioner, Kenneth McMillan as the Borough Commander, Doris Roberts as the Mayor’s wife.

And of course our four colorful criminals, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) Hector Elizondo (Mr. Gray) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman ) match the primary tones of the film. Their faces obscured by disguises that are caricatures.  An interesting note the color of the men’s hats correspond with their pseudonyms. In contrast to the earthy tones of the film Garber’s wears a banana yellow tie. Quentin Tarantino paid homage to the titular nicknames in his ultra violent Reservoir Dogs 1992.

There is no real set-up, or background relationship between the four hijackers. After seeing Martin Balsam exit a yellow cab, and Shire’s dynamic score comes into play, the film has an immediate tempo of being out of control. The film opens with one of the most popular scores of the seventies, David Shires, driving aural waves of dissonant jazz. With military type snare drum rolls and resounding trombones and electronica. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) is perhaps one of the most iconic action thriller of the seventies era. Opening with the dynamic life force of a pulsing New York City. Cabs, bodies in motion, unique to the city with it’s dialect “Fifty Foist Street” And the mania of people rushing down below in the subways, hot, grimy and anonymous.

When subway line Pelham One Two Three which is a subway car that begins from the Lexington Avenue station is hijacked by four seemingly random criminals Mr. Green, Mr. Blue, Mr. Gray and Mr. Brown all dressed in hats to match the colors of their pseudonyms, overcoats, black rimmed glasses and phony mustaches it throws the New York City transit into chaos. The Transit Authority personnel as well as the subway’s passengers are portrayed as stereotypically New Yorkers, rough around the edges of various ethnicities.

The train’s passengers are represented as a row of assorted stereotypes including the wise-but-kvetchy Jew, the “fairy,” the Black pimp, the hysterical Hispanic woman, the disarrayed mother who has no control over her children, the long haired hippie, the tough as nails whore and the clueless drunk who sleeps through the whole nightmare. What comes off with this device is that the ordeal of the story is just an everyday occurrence on the New York City subway.

And these passengers are actually listed in the credits as The Maid, The Mother, The Homosexual, The Secretary, The Delivery Boy, The Salesman, The Hooker, The Old Jewish Man, The Older Son, The Spanish Woman, The Alcoholic (who sleeps through the entire seizure), The Pimp, Coed #1, Coed #2, The Hippie and The W.A.S.P. One of my complaints of seventies cinema — though it is one of my favorite sub-genres of cinema– is the inherent misogyny and easily permissive racism and homophobia. 

Mr. Blue calmly informs them that they want one million dollars or they will execute one hostage for every minute they don’t receive the ransom.

Dick O’Neill’s gruffness is delivered fluently as he grunts over the microphone at Mr. Blue “Keep dreamin’ maniac!”

Walter Matthau, who is the master of owning any picture he’s in, throws out more hilarious one liners which brings the much needed levity to the nervous tension. That is not to say that Tom Pedi and Dick O’Neill veteran stage and character actors don’t supply their share of snarky New York witticisms.

While the commuting passengers are concentrating on getting to where they need to go, one at a time the four hijackers board the train. Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw who plays a very composed and menacing British Mercenary). Accompanying Mr. Blue is Mr. Green, the continually sneezing Martin Balsam (who was fired from the transit department as a motormen suspected of trafficking drugs in the train cars) Later Garber figures out that one of the hijackers must have knowledge of handling a train, “Somebody down there knows how to drive a train. You don’t pick that up watching Sesame Street.”

Mr. Green (Shaw) enters the conductors car and hold a gun on head motorman James Broderick. “I’m taking your train.”

They begin to set up their scheme. Hector Elizondo who plays Mr. Gray is a unstable psychopath whose  infantile outbursts and uncontrollable belligerence show him capable of violence at any given moment. “I’ll shoot your pee pee off.” Later on Mr. Green tells Mr. Blue that he doesn’t trust Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo who is playing to type) and to keep an eye on Mr. Gray “I also think that he is mad. Why do you think they threw him out of the Mafia.”

Lastly Mr. Brown enters with a box for long stem roses. When the time comes, they pull out high powered automatic weapons and announce their plans to the horrified New Yorkers.

George Lee Miles as the pimp and Mr. Green (Robert Shaw) exchanging cutting remarks as commentary on the post Vietnam weariness and racism. “What’s wrong dude? Ain’t you never seen a sunset before?”

While the take over of Pelham One Two Three is underway, we are privy to the pressurized control room where the core of operations happens. Lt. Garber is showing a group of Japanese men who run the subway system in Tokyo, the works while throwing out wisecracks, “In the course of a normal work week, the average TA policemen deals with such crimes as robbery, assault, murder, drunkenness illness, vandalism, mishegas, abusiveness, sexual molestation, exhibitionism… “ means of mocking the four visiting Japanese executive’s assumed that they do not speak perfect English. Garber tells Rico- “Take these monkeys up to 13” Garber is enlightened after these very quietly polite men tell him that it was a most interesting tour.

The film boasts it’s built-in racism and visits it’s bias through a series of faux pas. Garber (Walter Matthau) has the privilege of his comedic traits can get away with lines as when he meets the Inspector Daniels who is black played by Julius Harris. Garber uncomfortable tells him, “I hadn’t realized you were… so tall.”

Kenneth McMillan veteran character actor adds his bellicose bluster to the film!

Of course there is also the prevalent acceptable and misguided jokes in 70s films wielding homophobia. As seen in 70s films for example, the psychopathic drag queen in Freebie and the Bean (1974) and the flaming hitchhikers in Vanishing Point (1971) Garber assures the undercover long haired hippie cop who’s been wounded and lying face down on the tracks, “We’ll have an ambulance here in not time, Miss.”

Along with his colleagues who assume they don’t speak English. Lt Rico ( Jerry Stiller ) adds his comedic genius for instance when he tells the executives, “we had a bomb scare in the Bronx yesterday, it turned out to be a cantaloupe!” 

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is not only a tight moving tribute to the implicit action films that emerged during the seventies, it is dominated by some of the best dialogue of that decade’s action/thriller genre.

Once the hijackers have taken control over the subway train the command center tries to raise them on the radio.

“How come that gate isn’t locked?” “Who’s gonna steal a subway car?”

Once the control center realizes that something is wrong, they watch on the computerized board that tracks all the trains. The four men have disconnected the last set of cars and released a group of passengers with the head motorman leaving the front car, the conductor and 18 passengers.

“For Jesus Christ’s Sake the dumb bastard is moving backwards.”

Meanwhile at the control center they see that the train has stopped between stations. “Well stopped is better than backwards.”

They inform the passengers, “what’s happening is you’re all being held by four very dangerous men with machine guns.”

What the control center sees is that Pelham has powered off their radio and jumped its load. Mr. Green’s nose begins it’s trail of sneezes and eventual Gesundheits which will become part of the plot’s shtick. 

Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) in his usual chillingly sober manner tells Garber “Your train has been taken.” He informs Garber of three essential points. 1) Pelham is in our control 2) We have automatic weapons and 3) We have no scruples about killing. One of the most central forces of the suspense is how Robert Shaw’s unwavering voice sounds so wickedly, deliciously deadpan when he takes up that microphone to talk to Walter Matthau.

They want $1,000,000 for the release of the passengers. Garber asks “Who am I speaking to?”

Blue stiffly tells him, “I’m the man who stole your train.”

The old Jewish passenger asks Mr. Blue “Excuse me sir what’s gonna happen if you don’t get what you want?” “Excuse me sir, we will get what we want.”

Earl Hindman as the more subdued Mr. Brown

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a pragmatic depiction of inured and balsy New Yorkers at that time in the city. One of the passengers, the prostitute tells the hijackers, “What do you mean you’re hijacking the train! I have an important appointment.” 

Mr. Blue doing the crossword puzzle while making his deadly serious demands…

Mr. Gray “Hold it right there, cowboy!”

Caz Dolowicz “Who the fuck are you?”

Mr. Gray “Well you’ll find out if you take one more step!”

Caz Dolowicz “I’m warnin’ you, mister, that’s city property you’re fooling around with!

Mr. Gray “Well that’s too fucking bad!”

Caz Dolowicz Why didn’t you go grab a goddamn airplane like everybody else?”

Mr. Gray “Cause we’re afraid of flyin’! Now get back or I’ll shoot your goddam ass off!”

Caz Dolowicz “The hell with you, I’m comin’ on board!”

Mr. Gray “I warned ya, stupid!”

It is immediately after Mr. Green warns Mr. Blue that Mr. Gray is mad, that he opens fire on Caz Dolowicz. When Fat Caz (Tom Pedi) goes underground and tramples the tracks insisting to get aboard his train, crazy Mr. Gray opens up on him with his machine gun.

Nathan George (One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest (1975) as Ptl. James who is monitoring the siege down in the tunnel. Rico asks if Caz Dolowicz is dead. “Wouldn’t you be Lt.?”

Dick O’Neill as Frank Correll bellyaches throughout the entire film. He does not care that the subway is under siege. He is the epitome of the perceived typical attitudes of an older generation of New Yorkers who only see the hijacking as an inconvenience to him for keeping his trains scheduled on time. “Screw the goddamned passengers.”  “What do they expect for their lousy 35c – to live forever?!”

Garber hears Mr. Green sneeze and there begins the first Gesundheit” “Thank you” replies Mr. Green casually.

The mayor (Lee Wallace) laughably resembles Mayor Koch who wouldn’t become Mayor until 1978-1989, is portrayed as an incompetent bureaucrat surrounded by his nurse, tissues and a trudge of indecision, who needs advice from the real brains in Gracie Mansion his wife Doris Roberts. 

Frank Correll (Dick O’Neill) tells Garber “You’re playing grab ass with a bunch of goddam pirates.”

Garber follows his hunch and has them start to go through the files for any motormen discharged for cause. In the meantime, they are told to restore power, turn all signals green and remove all police from the tunnel. With all the details worked out and going their way, Garber figures they also have a plan to make their escape out of the subway tunnels.

Everyone is baffled when Pelham starts to move too soon before Command Central has everything set up, and everyone in the control room keeps asking — who’s moving? Garber responds, “What’s the matter with everybody? How many hijacked trains we got around here, anyway?”

With the green lights on the train will be able to continue on without being stopped, and this doesn’t trouble Garber at first because he knows there is a safety catch involved referred to as “Dead Man’s Feature” which is a handle the train is equipped with in the event the motorman dies while driving the train and they need to come to a stop. Pelham stops below 18th street. They haven’t cleared the tracks yet. Garber orders cops at every point of the tunnel and exits. They figure that the four won’t be able to get off the train without being stopped. What they don’t know is that Mr. Green has constructed a make shift metal bar that acts as an arm to hold down the Dead Man’s Feature and while they sneak off by an exit in the Village the train and it’s passengers are now speeding out of control with all the green lights go and no way to stop it from heading toward a crash.

“No one’s on the breaks!” “There’s nobody driving the fucking train!”

My favorite, Martin Balsam as Mr. Green aka Harold Longman rolling in the cash…

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying hang on to your seats and stay tuned for Part 2 !

7 thoughts on “70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, Psycho-sexual machinations, and ‘the self loathing whore

  1. I haven’t seen Klute in decades, but Pelham 123 is a favorite! What a NYC film it is! I will have to revisit Klute in light of your keen observations here. I did not remember how NYC looms as a place in the film, and did not consider the feminist aspects of Brie’s character. Thank you for an enjoyable read!

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  2. I really enjoyed your detailed analysis of Klute. Looking for Mr. Goodbar is another one that fits in with this theme. I was lucky to see Pelham 123 at the movie theater when I was a little kid. I love both of these films. Glad I discovered your blog through a random search for William Castle.

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  3. Hi Regina, I so glad you enjoyed the piece! The 70s is filled with such gritty and captivating films. It’s one of my favorite decades of filmmaking for sure. Looking For Mr. Goodbar is a great example. I’m so glad you found me. It sounds like it was through the William Castle blogathon That was a hoot to do. Great to see you here at The Last Drive In. I should be publishing Vanishing Point in a few days! it’s another more obscure but quintessential part of 70s cinema. Cheers, Joey

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  4. Hey, Joey. Hope you’re doing well. Just want to drop you a note to say how much I dig parts 1 and 2 of this 70’s post. Klute and Taking Of Pelham 123 are great favourites of mine.

    I love 70’s cinema because of how it captures the mood of the time. People were becoming mistrustful of government and authority, and there was far more openness about sexuality. Very interesting film era.

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    1. Hi Bryan, there is nothing quite like the realism and gritty atmosphere of the 70s — I’ve got to do another grouping of films. Hope you enjoy re-watching Klute-it’s a brilliant film on so many levels. Thanks for stopping by The Last Drive In , and come by again!, Cheers, Joey

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