The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – A Movie Review

This is a caper movie.  Four men armed with machine guns hijack a New York City subway train and hold the passengers for a million-dollar ransom.  Walter Matthau plays Lt. Garber of the NYC Transit Authority Police who negotiates with the kidnappers.  Robert Shaw is “Mr. Blue,” the criminal mastermind of the gang.  With supporting cast members Jerry Stiller as Lt. Rico Patrone, a cop working for Garber, Martin Balsam as “Mr. Green,” the man in the gang who knows how to run a subway train and Lee Wallace as the despised and cowardly Mayor of New York the movie is a taut drama with humor and suspense mixing perfectly to suspend disbelief.  And with gobs of local color from a supporting cast that acts and talks remarkably like actual New Yorkers of the period (as I can personally attest) the movie bumps along from the initial capture of the train to the first dead body to the mad dash to get the ransom money to the stone-cold killers who enforce a deadline with the lives of the hostages at gunpoint.

Matthau and Stiller provide the comic relief and Shaw provides the menace with bloodless calm.  The hostages are a tapestry of the ethnicities and callings of that time and the other parts, cops, the mayor’s cronies and the transit workers all add texture to the story.  And the swearing!  Except for Robert Shaw almost every character including the women curse a blue streak.  Some of it is actually quite amusing but it should be mentioned in case there are any folks who would take offense.  And the most important character of the whole drama is the New York City subway system of that era.  The movie was made in and on the subway trains and tunnels and it is unmistakably authentic.  It brings back the thousands of hours of my life I spent travelling around Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and The Bronx on subway cars.

Here we are almost fifty years since this movie was made and it stands up very well although only the old remember the New York City being represented.  I must confess it did my heart good to see the people of that era being represented.  The city back then probably had a higher crime rate than even now in these post George Floyd riots times.  And racial tensions were high and neighborhoods treated outsiders with suspicion.  But at least back then people still considered the police as part of the solution.  Nowadays the police are so disrespected that they probably wouldn’t even bother to save the hostages’ lives.  They’d wait until the hostages were shot and then write up the reports and look for some surveillance footage for the six o’clock news report.

I highly recommend this movie with just a warning about the swearing for the genteel.

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