They don’t make faces like Walter Matthau’s anymore. Yes, there are distinctive actors: perfumed horseman Adam Driver, the regal and scarred Michael K. Williams, whatever alchemy makes Keanu Reeves look like Keanu Reeves. But the perturbed crankiness that Matthau wore on his face and carried in his bones is also what gives real-life affect to the 1974 classic The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, available on Prime Video.
He’s craggy and wrinkled, his posture is a chiropractor’s nightmare, and while his slight, omnipresent squint suggests a little bit of bemusement, the set of his jaw is more akin to scorn. He is a refreshingly brusque and no-nonsense New Yorker in a cinematic decade when refreshingly brusque and no-nonsense New Yorkers were some of the best protagonists we had, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three counterintuitively pulls off its copaganda thanks to Matthau’s dryness and drollness. (And his eyebrows, which seem to have the sentiment ability to smirk on their own.)
The film from director Joseph Sargent and screenwriter Peter Stone—adapting the same-named 1973 novel by Morton Freedgood, writing under the pen name John Godey—has been much mimicked in the decades since. Die Hard, Reservoir Dogs, Inside Man, Money Monster, and, of course, Tony Scott’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, remake, have all lifted elements of the film’s primary details: a commandeered location, codenamed criminals, a demanded ransom, terrified hostages, and a tête-à-tête between the hijackers and an officer of the law. But what those films have failed to fully recreate, and what the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three has in spades, is the griminess of a city sinking into despair, the ruthlessness of men trying to buy their way out, and the humor to be found in realizing you have nothing left to lose.
Heist movies have a style and danger of their own, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three luxuriates in that aesthetic duality and omnipresent tension. David Shire’s brassy, bombastic score, with its shrieking horns, unctuous bass, and sneaky keys. Owen Roizman’s long shots emphasizing the claustrophobia of this barely organized city (taxis jostling on the street, bodies jostling on subway platforms) and his unexpected camera placements capturing its kinetic energy (a dashboard perspective during a high-speed race through Manhattan, extreme close-ups on stacks and stacks of bills being sent through money sorters). And Gene Rudolf’s art direction, which helped transform the abandoned Court Street subway station in Brooklyn and the hijacked train into a slightly nicer version of New York City [with no graffiti, as dictated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)], the governor’s mansion into a palace of hoity-toity ignorance, and the various MTA offices into bastions of fluorescently lit competence.
Altogether, the effect is one of busy people going about their lives in a place that only makes space for people who make it for themselves, which is how The Taking of Pelham One Two Three starts. One by one, a group of similarly dressed men—mustache, hat, patterned overcoat, black plastic glasses, large package—get on the Pelham Bay Station-departing 6 train, alongside an array of passengers that operate as a sort of cross section of the city: an older white man, a woman with two sons, a pair of young hippie friends, a burnout guy in an old Army jacket, a couple of younger Latin American women, a young Black Vietnam War veteran, a woman asleep on a bench with a liquor bottle nestled under her body. They don’t pay these four men any mind, until Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), very quietly and confidently, pulls a gun on the train motorman Denny Doyle (James Broderick) and asserts, “I’m taking your train.”
He barely raises his voice, but Mr. Blue radiates the kind of authority that comes from knowing you’ve faced death, survived, and ended up unimpressed. Who would dare say no to this man? His comrades don’t: not the flu-addled Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), not the silent muscle Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman), not the psychotic Mr. Grey (Héctor Elizondo). They’re willing participants in this scheme to take Doyle and 17 subway riders hostage, ransom them for $1 million, and then shoot one for each second that the demanded cash from the mayor (Lee Wallace) is late. The money is the thing, and they want it.
What to do? An array of city workers mobilize to figure out what the color guard has planned: Lt. Zachary Garber (Matthau) of the New York Transit Authority Police and his colleague Lt. Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller), used to dealing with “robbery, assault, murder, drunkenness, illness, vandalism, mishegaas, abusiveness, sexual molestation, and exhibitionism,” involve the city police in rounding up enough men and weapons to start World War III. Grand Central Tower supervisor Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi), who grows increasingly frantic over Pelham 123’s immobility in the tunnel and tries to sort out how to keep the rest of the city’s trains running. Transit Authority Command Center employee Frank Correll (Dick O’Neill), who is aghast that Garber is negotiating with Mr. Blue. And Patrolman James (Nathan George), who sneaks into the tunnel and serves as another pair of eyes on the ground.
These men aren’t perfect. They’re rude to a group of visiting Japanese employees of the Tokyo transit system. They dismiss whether a female police officer would be good at her job. They wonder whether Mr. Blue, with his British accent, is a “fruitcake.” The mayor is more irritated by missing an episode of The Newlywed Game than the possibility that 18 New Yorkers will die. But they step up because they have to, and so they do. Caz strides into the tunnel. James stays within it. Garber gets on the radio. Frank remains at his terminal. And until the film’s wild conclusion between the insane, but begrudgingly admirable, discipline of a man like Mr. Blue, and the bemused, dogged discipline of a man like Lt. Garber, these men do everything they can.
On the one hand, all these men are part of a massive bureaucratic machine, one that often uses discriminatory policies and narrow-minded thinking to maintain their authority and their inclusivity. (Consider the mayor’s whiny “Don’t we get to think about it?”, a perfect commentary on the fecklessness of the political elite.) But on the other hand, every day these workers are responsible for 7,000 cars and 237 miles of track (only a few of the educational details that Stone works into his script), and it’s not that their institutional knowledge makes them immediately into heroes. What it does, though, is demonstrate how people—even the legendarily grumpy ones, a la Matthau’s actorly persona—are capable of acts of courage and daring you might not expect, and that selflessness is as aspirational now as it was back then.
“The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.