“The Taking of Pelham 123” is an action crime drama directed by Joseph Sargent, who seems to have mainly done television directing. Maybe that would have been useful as he would have been used to working on a low budget and making everything very tight and with minimal expense. It means that this film manages to be a suspenseful drama without having a massive amount of action.
Pelham 123 is an underground train in New York, which is taken over by four armed men. They isolate the front carriage and ask for one million dollars from the city (remember in 1974 that was quite a lot more than it is today), otherwise they will kill the eighteen people on board. The remainder of the film deals with this crisis, cutting between the train and the various people outside trying to resolve the problem. For a film where much of the dialogue is conducted by radio, and the actual shooting and violence is a relatively small part of the story, it is surprisingly exciting.
The cast were superb, headed up by Walter Matthau as transit police lieutenant Garber, who ends up being the one negotiating with the kidnappers purely by being in the control room at the time the situation occurred. These days of course a film would have a ‘negotiator’ come in to do this work. I don’t believe they had such a thing in the seventies, so the police officer in charge would be the one to do the talking. Sometimes in film you have police officers either being improbably slow, or alternatively improbably brilliant. I liked the character of Garber as he is neither, just a competent officer who thinks of the necessary investigative angles and picks up on available auditory clues, but who is almost fooled by the kidnappers’ ploy at the end. Matthau plays this character in excellent Matthau fashion – he is laconic, calm, but not above coming down hard when needed, as in a scene where the train control supervisor is being extremely obstructive and causing problems. His confrontation of the main criminal at the end is the same – no dramatic ‘freeze!’ or ‘drop your weapon!’ just a calm ‘you want to put that gun down’. It is almost anticlimactic, but in my opinion more believable that way, and more in keeping with the character.
He is opposed by Robert Shaw as ‘Mr Blue’, the leader of the hijackers. Shaw’s character is an obvious professional and quite cold-blooded. He will not negotiate more time, as he knows it is a delaying tactic. He is quite prepared to kill hostages as required, which he does after one of the watching policemen fire their weapon and injure one of the hijackers. Shaw plays this ruthless and unemotional character beautifully. Mr Blue is mostly calm whatever happens, and Shaw delivers a very chilling portrayal.
Given that the film was made in 1973, there are a few cringe-worthy moments, in relation to casual racism and sexism. Examples of this are the Japanese visitors Garber is showing around at the start of the film, who he says racist things about because he believes they don’t understand him (they do); a black man on the train is struck with a gun by one of the hijackers, who also calls him a monkey; Garber assumes that the police captain he has been speaking to on the radio is white, and fumbles a bit with his words when he discovers otherwise; there is a woman working in one of the train control rooms, who is spoken about quite nastily by the supervisor (and quite obviously has to put up with it); and so on. Given the era the film was made this is not particularly unusual, unfortunately. I mention it as a warning if anyone reading is planning to watch the film.
A brilliant use of suspense occurs when the ransom is being prepared. Initially there is footage of money being counted, and then the film cuts between Garber speaking to the hijackers, the train, the police officers waiting for the money, a clock, and the bank employees racing around trying to get the money counted and packed. The editing of this part of the film between these different scenes expertly increased tension and suspense, without a great deal of action.
Frankly the direction of this film is superb. It is a no-frills, no fuss film which tells its story without unnecessary dialogue or added action pieces. All the cast were excellent in their roles – while I have never been to New York I have been given to understand that this film is entirely and convincingly a New York film with New York characters (with the exception of the British Robert Shaw, of course.) The score fits perfectly – it starts with the film with jazz based, almost jarring music, its dissonance giving a suggestion of the trouble to come. It sets the tone for the entire movie.
“The Taking of Pelham 123” is a highly entertaining, well-directed and acted action-suspense film. In my opinion it is far superior to many so-called action films made today. It’s definitely well worth watching.