1:23 pm. 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 dialogue and characterizations just as accelerated as a runaway train. The initial part of the film is completely immersed underground with its murky greens, grays, and shadows lit only by the subway lamps.
Director Joseph Sargent instructed Owen Roizman to shoot the picture on a Wide Screen, which would create the effect of not having a high ceiling, the overhead and bottom of the screen being cut off giving the film 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 the alienation of the city and the urban nightmare.
One of the films from the seventies utilizes the subway as a symbol of the ‘changing nature of the city partly from the perspective of its citizens primarily its 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’s 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 are obscured by disguises that are caricatures. An interesting note the color of the men’s hats corresponds with their pseudonyms. In contrast to the earthy tones of the film, Garber 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 thrillers 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 its 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 bring 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 conductor’s car and holds a gun on the head of motorman James Broderick. “I’m taking your train.”
They begin to set up their scheme. Hector Elizondo who plays Mr. Gray is an 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) exchange 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 takeover 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 policeman 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 its built-in racism and visits its bias through a series of faux pas. Garber (Walter Matthau) has the privilege of his comedic traits and can get away with lines as when he meets 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 are 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 no 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, but it is also dominated by some of the best dialogue of that decade’s action/thriller genre.
Once the hijackers have taken control of 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 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 backward.”
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 its 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 Cuckoo’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 makeshift 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 its 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, is Martin Balsam as Mr. Green aka Harold Longman rolling in the cash…