Taking of Pelham One Two Three
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Taking of Pelham One Two Three

For almost as long as people have been creating movies someone else is going to take that story or idea and attempt to put their spin on it. It has been my experience based on several decades watching movies that while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it rarely manages to achieve the quality of the original. One recent example just happened to involve one of my all time favorite crime films; ‘Taking of Pelham One Two Three.' Of course, I’m referring to the 1974 version not the ‘re-imagined rendition from 2010. While the original film did not have access to modern special effects or contain the high energy action sequences that buoyed the newer version it did have a certain entertaining charm to it especially if you happen to be a native New Yorker such as myself. Although the film was made with a contemporary setting, the intervening 36 years has infused the work with a nostalgic quality that cannot be remotely approached but the more recent edition. The film takes place on the old IRT number six downtown local starting out from the 96th Street station, one I stood on twice a day for over seven years. This is the subway I remember with the vending machines offering candy, gum, and soda on every platform and the largely illuminated round analog clocks although the ones shown in the film had to be from the special effects area; they displayed the correct time. It is these touches of realism that helps this version exceed the next attempt. Millions like me familiar with the NYC subways will feel right at home forming a particular gut level association with the lamentable hostages. Even if you don’t hail from this great city or never rode a subway this movie remains one of the best constructed thrillers ever made. If is as gripping and exciting today as the first time I took my wife on the subway to see this in the Village.

The screenplay was based on the bestselling novel by John Godey. For once the script writer retained the spirit and tension of the book. Performing this commendable feat was Peter Stone who had experience in the completely unrelated field of Broadway musicals including ‘1776’ and ‘Sweet Charity.' Not only did the set designer and producers bring the look and feel of New York into the film Stone did an incredible job of using the distinctive New Yorker’s attitude as a character in the story. When the criminals first shout out their intentions, the first reaction of the passengers is to laugh followed rapidly by mouthing off to the heavily armed men. This use of attitude is reinforced by the staff in the control room. One supervisor, ‘Fat’ Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi) cannot get past a single sentence without peppering it with a string of foul language. Adding to his frustration and helping to date the film his resentment of women on the job, a situation that was only permissible in the last few months. Directing was Joseph Sargent, who had a long and successful career both in film and television which include ‘Walt Disney,' ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The Man from U.N.CL.E.’. This versatility in genres shows in his directorial style here. The writing and direction combine seamlessly to create a film that is suspenseful, riveting and able to keep you on the edge of your seat. In this era of domestic terrorism, the thought of a group of men with machine guns and the predilection to use them is frightening. Add to this a setting that inherently isolates the hapless hostages from any assistance, and you get a commuter’s worse nightmare. We’ve all been stuck in a train, lights out, not moving and felt annoyed at the realization that we will be late for wherever we are going, but this movie takes that fairly common occurrence twisting into a deadly battle of wits between the criminals and the authorities with the passengers caught like helpless pawns. This actually would be a great setting for a gothic horror story; isolation, a ticking clock and a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

This is such a great cast with every role featuring someone of proven talent. The disgruntled former motorman was played by veteran character actor Martin Balsam while Hector Elizondo portrayed his hot-headed co-conspirator. Fans of the TV series might recognize the voice of the neighbor Wilson as Mr. Brown. While his face was never shown in the series, it is fully visible here. Quentin Tarantino would adapt the use of colors to hide the real names of the characters in his seminal heist thriller ‘Reservoir Dogs.' One of the transit police officers played by the famous comedian and father of Ben Stiller, Jerry Stiller. Of course, the real treat is the interaction between the two main characters; mastermind Mr. Blue tightly played by Robert Shaw and the transit police supervisor, Lt. Zachary Garber, brilliantly portrayed by Walter Matthau. Typically when you think of Matthau comedies like ‘The Odd Couple’ or ‘Cactus Flower’ most likely come to mind but he was quite an accomplished dramatic actor more than able to hold a scene opposite the incredibly intense Shaw. A large part of the fun in watching this are a little humor touches that Matthau was able to infuse in the film. When you get down to it, this film is entirely different from the remake. The 2010 variety was more of an action movie while this is a tense psychological thriller centered on a deadly cat and mouse game between two determined adversaries. The fact that they don’t come face to face until the conclusion demonstrates just how perfectly crafted this film is. It will remain a classic for a long time.

This has always been one of my personal favorite films in no small part because I took this line back and forth to school during my doctoral studies. I practically lived on the Number Six line of the IRT coincidentally during the period this movie was made. From the conductor in the middle of the train to the doors between cars, this film remains very much a significant set of memories preserved on film. Because of this, I was overjoyed when I discovered that this film was in the latest batch of Blu-ray remastered films offered by MGM/UA. This release set has been revisiting some of the very best movies in the laudable and extensive catalog of films they possess. This is not the best example of what can be done with the expanded video resolution and audio fidelity inherent in the high definition. While other films from the same period have been refreshed in their Blu-ray remastering in this instance the full capability of the format is not utilized, but this is not intended as a complete negative. There is a muted feel to the color palette accompanied by a subdued contrast. The overall impression given by the video is more grain than we have come to expect from the format. Now for the good news; this treatment works exceptionally well within the context of the film. The original DVD release was notoriously ill-prepared. As an essential, non-anamorphic release the DVD failed to meet contemporary standards of the time. In this case, the added bandwidth afforded to the format is utilized to enhance the mood and setting created by the movie. Subways, especially the old IRT lines were notoriously dank. The textures of the clothing and the look of the trains track and control room all scream accuracy that places you right in the middle of the action. The Underground scenes are gritty and claustrophobic perfect for conveying the circumstances depicted.

The audio is presented in DTS Master HD, but the sound mix remains modest. The rear speakers are minimally used for some ambiance, and the subwoofer mostly is silent. The front channel separation is limited, but once again the collapse of the sound field is conducive to providing the proper closed in feel. The story is the most important thing here, and ultimately this Blu-ray release tells it far better than before.

Posted 07/09/2010    07/14/2016        05/24/2017

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