Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

"The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (Joseph Sargent, 1974) Taut, no-frills caper thriller about the hi-jacking of a New York subway train by a group of color-named conspirators. Veteran director Joseph Sargent and cinematographer Owen Roizman create a gritty landscape of dark passages and harsh fluorescent lighting while the Transit police try to negotiate with the hi-jackers, and the hi-jackers deal with their internal squabbles and a subway car of jumpy New Yorkers. It's like anything: Nothing's easy.

This was the first of more adaptations than necessary (
a TV version was broadcast in 1999 with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D'Onofrio, and Tony Scott is making a new one with Denzel Washington and John Travolta) of John Godey's novel, but is the best of the bunch, having the advantage of a witty script penned by Peter Stone, screenwriter of "Charade" and the musical "1776." Stone realized the bare-bones plot of the novel wouldn't sustain a movie, and fleshed out the characters with a jokey, schlumpfy "attitude" that keeps the slow parts entertaining, especially when played by two character actors like Walter Matthau and Jerry Stiller. Matthau gets the advantage of playing a fairly straight character with a muffled humor, while Stiller makes the sarcasm of his dispatcher as dry as Brooklyn dust. By contrast, the hi-jackers (Hector Elizando, Martin Balsam, Earl Hindman, led by Robert Shaw) are twitchy no-nonsense cyphers cloaked in anonymity. It's the cops who are the interesting ones, as they race against time to secure a million dollars in ransom and deliver it before hostages begin being killed.

The direction and lighting take their cues from the documentary style of "The French Connection,"* as does the funky score by David Shire, but Stone's script is the factor that nudges the film beyond its thriller origins and give it a cynical style.

In fact, it is so well done, that one questions the need to do another version.

*Owen Roizman was the DP for that film, as well.


Walaka said...

I thought this was great.

But then, I was a high school student in New York, taking the subway every day, who had devoured the book.

And I love the old-school poster with so much in it, as opposed to some stark graphic symbol.

Yojimbo_5 said...

It's good on a number of levels, not the least of which is to see Walter Matthau acting, instead of auditioning for a sit-com.

I can only imagine what Tony Scott will bring to the (second) remake--washed-out cinematography, blurred "speed" shots, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the cars blew up in a large orange diesel-fueled explosion, taken from sixteen cameras.

And Denzel Washington? Fine. John Travolta? Yeesh.