I’ve written before about the whole concept of certification, the idea (put forth by Walker Percy in The Moviegoer) that some places only become real to us once we’ve seen them onscreen. And I’m hard pressed to think of a place for which that’s more true than New York.
Of course I’ve never actually been there. But I can’t be the only one who feels like he has, because I’ve seen it in so many films and shows, heard it in so many songs, read it in so many stories. In the best of those, the city becomes a living character in his own right.
Which brings me to a certain subway train…
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was released in 1974, the kind of year that also gave us The Conversation and The Godfather Part II (to name but two examples). And Joseph Sargent’s thriller, adapted by Peter Stone from John Godey’s novel, can stand with the best of that year, as a prototype for the modern action film (think of Speed as one of its descendants).
If you know the title, you know the plot. A band of thieves (their color-coded aliases a clear influence on Tarantino) takes that aforementioned train hostage, demanding payment of one million dollars in exchange for the lives of the passengers. As the authorities stall and bluff and try to out-think the hijackers, the character of the city is revealed in the characters we meet – hijackers and hostages, transit men, arguably even the train itself. There’s a quality more felt than seen about the film, a sense that what happens in it could only happen in this city, at this time, with these people. And the film’s so much stronger for it.
And as the film brings the city to life, its fantastic cast brings the citizens to life as well. As the leader of the hijackers, Robert Shaw is obviously brilliant (if you want a dictionary definition of range, watch this movie on a double-bill with his very next screen performance… in a film called Jaws), but the film’s other actors are just as strong. And those actors include the likes of Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman, Jerry Stiller, Doris Roberts, and Kenneth McMillan.
And then there’s Walter Matthau, in the kind of performance that defined his career. There’s nothing particularly flashy about his work – Matthau never stole a scene so much as he quietly took possession of it. But that was his gift. And the way he used it as Lt. Zachary Garber encompasses everything that was great about Walter Matthau.
If all it had was that cast, and Sargent’s smart and steady direction, it would be enough. But it also has one of film’s great scores, a nervy, jazzy turn by David Shire. And its last shot is one of the great endings in film history – not just the perfect coda to a fantastic thrill ride, but the perfect summary of a wonderful actor’s career.
If you’d like to see it (for the first time or again), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is available for instant viewing on Netflix, on DVD, or on BluRay. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
So, once again, thanks for your time and support. Until the next post, “be seeing you…”
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