Studio: MGM/20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: R
Disc/Transfer Information: Widescreen 2.35:1 (non-anamorphic)
Tested Audio Track: English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Director: Joseph Sargent
Starring Cast: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Hector Elizondo, Tony Roberts
LoMANACO'S PLOT ANALYSIS:
With all the recent excitement and forum hoopla swirling around Tony Scott’s remake – or, as he prefers to call it, “reimagining” – of the 1974 crime gem on Blu-ray, I thought it rather relevant and interesting to go back and take a look at this often-forgotten thriller based on the novel by John Godey and helmed by Joseph Sargent. I have added this DVD to my personal collection based on experience and interest in the title at a young age, and for the fact that it makes an effective companion piece to the Tony Scott remake. Unfortunately, MGM has not commissioned the 1974 Taking of Pelham One Two Three on Blu-ray, nor has it released a remastered version on standard DVD, which is usual practice for a studio when a remake comes out either theatrically or on home video; this, in my opinion, was a lame decision by the Sony/MGM/Fox/Columbia conglomerate. A tie-in for people to re-acquaint themselves with the original during the time of the remake’s release would have been smart, as well as something to give fans of the ’74 original.
For those of you only exposed to the recent re-telling of this story by kinetically-gifted director Tony Scott, which starred Denzel Washington and John Travolta, the initial film surprisingly boasted a rather large cast: Remember Denzel’s role in the remake, as Transit Dispatch officer? Walter Matthau plays that part in the original film, only he’s a New York Transit cop working in the rail control center. Travolta’s wild “Ryder” (Dennis Ford) character is played by Robert Shaw in this 1974 edition, while supporting roles portrayed by the likes of Luis Guzman, John Turturro and James Gandolfini in the remake are based off of performances by Hector Elizondo (one of Shaw’s henchmen on the hijacked train, which was the “Bashkin” character in the remake) and Martin Balsam – even Jerry Stiller is in this original film, playing another NYC Transit officer in the rail control center.
Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is rendered with such a dry, sarcastically overdone feel that at some points, it borders on unwatchable and even laughable – but it creates part of this film’s overall charm, attempted to be mimicked by Scott’s remake. There’s a sprinkling of bad language in this, but it’s done tastefully unlike the overdone excess in the newer version. But just how do the two films differ in terms of screenplay and story development? Matthau plays “Zachary Garber” (which Scott used to create Denzel Washington’s “Walter Garber” character in his film, borrowing Matthau’s first real name and mixing it with the character’s last name), a Transit officer that goes about his days sulking and getting into sarcastic rhetoric bantering with Stiller’s could-care-less character in the rail control center. One of these days are broken up by a visit to the Transit Control by a group of Tokyo train execs, who are taken for a humorous tour by Matthau around the New York City control center; when I say humorous, I refer to a particular moment in this sequence where Matthau doesn’t realize the Oriental gentlemen can actually understand English as he calls them “dummies” and “monkeys” during the tour.
Meanwhile, a group of men are seen boarding the Pelham, Bronx, New York subway train at different points, each dressed in trenchcoats of varying kinds, and all wearing glasses and mustaches. Robert Shaw is the charismatic leader of the group, who boards last and, as taken in the remake, demands for the motorman to open the control booth for him under the threat of a machine gun. Whereas in the remake the men were known as “Ryder,” “Bashkin,” “Phil Ramos” and so on, the hijackers in the original are simply known as “Mr. Green” and “Mr. Blue,” etcetera, named after colors. As the other men – including a vulgar and sexually aggressive rather demented Hector Elizondo – take their positions in the subway cars, Shaw and his appointed new motorman (Luis Guzman’s character in the remake) position the train in an ideal position in the tunnel, stop it and disconnect all but one primary car. Of course, this is signaling all kinds of chaos in the control station, and a wild-mouthed, anxiety-ridden dispatcher begins losing his cool – especially when Pelham One Two Three doesn’t answer his outrageous demands for their response over the radio. Shaw finally states his demands in a cool, calculating fashion (as opposed to Travolta’s over-the-top violent performance) to the dispatch center – a million dollars in cash is to be released by the mayor for the safe return of the passengers onboard. Of course, times have changed since the 1970s, and the remake sees a demand of 10 million bucks. The immediate reaction to these demands by the overtly anxious and foul-mouthed dispatcher is hysterical to witness, as he calls them “maniacs” and “nut jobs” and everything in the like, while taking down the list of demands. At this point, Garber (Matthau) takes over the case, being a Transit Police authority, and a witty bantering session is humorously played out between him and the fiery dispatcher.
Tony Roberts (Amityville 3-D) turns in an early performance in this as the deputy mayor, who rushes to His Honor’s side at Gracie Mansion in Manhattan to alert him of the demands of these hijackers. The mayor – who’s a spitting image of a younger Ed Koch – is sick with the flu and refuses to get involved in anything until Roberts demands a meeting with city officials and His Honor himself to discuss whether to give in to the hijackers or not. But what’s most fascinating during all these sequences while watching the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three is to bear witness to all the old, classic New York City Transit equipment and “technology” of the time period – instead of a digitalized computer center as in the remake, we see flashing bulbs representing the train lines running on their routes, up on the control center’s wall. The clothing…the thick, ridiculously over-authentic New York accents on the Transit characters (”Get to woik!...”)…the old subway trains…it harkens back to a New York of the past, so authentically captured by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (in films like Taxi Driver) or even in films such as Nighthawks. It’s a stark contrast to the modern New York Transit operations depicted in Tony Scott’s film.
But much of the groundwork utilized by Scott for the recent retelling of the story is all here – the demand by the hijackers that the money get to them in one hour, the undercover cop on the train, the stopping of the train in the middle of the tunnel so the men can make their escape and put the train on auto so the passengers go for a wild speed ride…while these elements were updated in the remake, it was interesting to revisit the original images from the first film in all their old glory. Eventually, the million dollars is delivered to Shaw and his men, and they begin to plot their getaway, which is through underground derelict stairways which lead to the New York streets above. Where in Scott’s remake, the throttle is set by Travolta in order to defeat “the dead man” failsafe feature, here, a hokey plan is put into action whereby Shaw and his motorman henchman alter the underpinnings of the train somehow, which causes it to move on its own down the tunnel at a ridiculous speed. On the train are humorous ramblings by different New York stereotypes and demographics; a Jewish old man, Puerto Rican women shouting prayers for the train to stop, African-American men jivin’ and buckin’ all over the place…it’s amazing to actually watch.
As the train rushes forward and Shaw and his men jump off to make their escape, Matthau and the cops are following above in a squad car, attempting to keep up with the speeding train. That is, until Matthau figures out that they must have gotten off at the little stop they made. Now, where Scott’s remake had Travolta and his men escaping through the Waldorf Astoria hotel and separating – but all eventually being shot – the original film told a bit of a different tale. The hijackers come down to all but Shaw and his motorman, until Shaw is eventually confronted by Matthau in the tunnel itself. I won’t divulge how Shaw’s character meets his demise here.
Alas, the final surviving hijacker makes his way up through the hidden staircase and out through a street level access – and apparently disappears into New York hustle and bustle. Meanwhile, Matthau and Stiller get a list of New York Transit motormen that were either in prison and got out, or who were blacklisted for some reason or another. That eventually brings them to Shaw’s motorman’s apartment – does he get away with the full million dollars? Do Matthau and Stiller nail him? I won’t give that away – but just let me say that the ending of the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is incredibly more clever and effective than the Travolta/Washington standoff conclusion in the remake. And it all has to do with a sneeze…
TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE REVIEW CONTINUED BELOW...