Sunday, February 03, 2013

movie review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
United States
directed by Joseph Sargent, based on the novel by John Godey
starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is an excellent example of a classic 1970s action/thriller set in New York City. The story is simple: four heavily armed, middle aged men wearing trilby hats, dark rimmed glasses, and moustaches take over a subway car and hold the passengers hostage. They call each other Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown. (Now you know which movie Quentin Tarantino was paying homage to with Reservoir Dogs.) They are demanding that one million dollars be delivered in an hour, or else, they say, they will start shooting the passengers one by one.

Mr. Blue, the head hostage-taker, is in radio contact with Walter Matthau, who plays Lieutenant Garber, head of the Transit Police. Matthau is gruff, witty, and intelligent; watching his radioed conversations with Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) is one of the film's delights. He is imperfect but very human and warm, a good contrast to Mr. Blue's cold cruelty. Garber knows that the delivery of the money will be late and asks for extra time; Mr. Blue refuses and gets ready to shoot one of the passengers. He's a sociopath who genuinely can't understand why it matters when Mr. Green tentatively asks how he's going to decide which passenger should be shot.

For me, the most interesting part of the movie was seeing just how much North American culture has changed in the last 39 years. There is a fair bit of casual sexism and racism exhibited by the characters--my impression was not that the movie makers condoned it, but rather that they were showing the characters' flaws and unpleasant edges. The movie makes note of the hostility directed at women newly allowed in male-only workplaces; of the condescending dismissal of "foreigners" and discomfited surprise when they are not as stupid as previously thought; of the newness of the idea that a black man could be a high-ranking police official.

It was also interesting to see the attitudes of authorities towards the hostage takers and the whole hostage situation. At first, they are just kind of incredulous. After all, how on earth could someone hold a subway car hostage? Impossible! There is not so much fear of the hostage-takers, or any idea of viewing them as terrorists, mostly just exasperation that the train is being held up. There is the general idea, at first, that agreeing to pay them money is a bit premature because how can we be certain they're actually going to kill the passengers, you know? And besides, everyone knows they'd never be able to get away with it. One gets the idea that they sort of want to call the hostage takers' bluff to see what happens. It's hard to imagine a similar reaction today in this security-and-terrorism-obsessed world.

I recommend this movie to anyone who likes tense, well-paced thrillers with lots of suspense. There is no quick-cut, modern-day action movie feel to this one; instead, it relies on building the tension in a more real-time, naturalistic way. I much prefer it. (Note: Watch for some familiar 1990s sitcom faces in small roles.)

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