Monday, November 12, 2007

Monday Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) 10/10
A gang of criminals led by "Mr. Blue" (Robert Shaw) kidnap a New York City subway car and hold the passengers hostage for a million dollars. Transit police Lieutenant Garber (Walter Matthau) negotiates for time while trying to discern their plan.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is probably best known today as the source for using color-coded pseudonyms during a heist, lifted by Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. Which is a shame; the movie should be known for its own merits.

One way to describe Pelham 123 is to tell you what's not in it. No one on the subway car is related to, or in a relationship with, anyone working in the transit office or for the police. None of the hostages are Lt. Garber's mother, sister, or childhood sweetheart. There are no coincidences in the plotting or characterization at all. No one in the movie looks like they're in a movie; no one has perfect features, or exquisite skin tone, or flawless makeup. There's no romance. But it's not a "guy" movie, either; the hostages are as likely to be female as male, and there are an unusual number of female roles for a heist movie.

All of which makes it kind of hard to describe. Some movies are great because they have a sweeping theme, or are startling or innovative, or are romantic, or incredibly witty. But a handful of movies are great because they're just great movies. They tell interesting stories with a rich array of embellishments. You walk away from them thinking not about love or truth or family or death, but about storytelling, and authenticity. The Man Who Would Be King is such a movie, a great yarn, you might say. So is Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And so is The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

The movie is populated with a terrific collection of character actors; only Shaw and Matthau are anything like stars, and even they are not of the "star" mold. The other criminals are Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Earl Hindman. On the transit side are Jerry Stiller and James Broderick (among others). Julius Harris is a cop, Lee Wallace as the mayor is a dead ringer for Ed Koch three years before the real Koch became mayor. But pulling out names sort of defeats the purpose. What happens is a cumulative effect; that you're looking at real people who are in and around the New York City subways circa 1974. That effect is never diminished, never movied-up. The location footage is grimy and run-down. Everything feels very real, in a way that works for both comedy and drama.

Of course, if you're going to blend comedy and drama, you want Matthau, who can turn the whole thing back and forth between the extremes with a twist of the wrist and a shift of eyebrows. There's a lot of laughs, but this is mostly straight-ahead thriller. You never really know what the kidnappers are going to do next, or why, but you're never confused as they reveal their plan, point by point. The cops are confused, but only exactly as much as the audience.

That's a tough line to walk. In lesser movies, you either catch onto a plot before the good guys and are stuck feeling like your heroes are stupid, or you never catch on because the whole thing is too obtuse. Here the crooks are just a teeny bit smarter than the cops can follow, but not crazy chessmaster smart.

In sum, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the kind of smart crime story that is all too rare. Definitely catch it the next time it comes around on TCM.

(The crossing of post, one two three)