Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three makes a nice companion piece to William Friedkin’s The French Connection from three years earlier. They’re both set in recognizably the same New York City, a mix of ethnicities, bureaucracies, and agendas and they’re both about a single crime and the cops pursuing it, but Pelham has both a tighter focus (it all takes place on a single day) and a tone that’s funnier without being any less particular than Friedkin’s.
Walter Matthau plays a transit cop who has to deal with a hijacked subway and Robert Shaw leads the quartet of criminals. (They are Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown. Yup, Tarantino lifted that for Reservoir Dogs, and I always felt that simply meant that this was one of Joe’s favorite films. Good for him.) Shaw gives one of the great villain performances, completely calm and commanding; there’s no arguing with this guy and barely any conversing with him.
That sense of underplaying goes all through Pelham, and it’s what makes it work so well. Matthau isn’t Determined Cop and he isn’t anything close to an action hero (he’s Walter Matthau, how could he be?), he’s a bureaucrat who has to deal with whatever lands on his desk every day, and today it’s a hijacking. He goes through the movie like his biggest concern will be what all the overtime will cost the department, which is about as good a description of 1970s NYC as I can think of. “Action movie where almost no one gives a shit” seems a like a contradiction, but it works here. All this and a thoroughly badass score from David Shire and one of the greatest last shots ever.
And yes, I remember a great remake of this recently, which updated the feel of the original to contemporary NYC, was loaded with energy and fun while providing a cross-section of a society, and was anchored by a wonderful, memorable performance from Denzel Washington: Spike Lee’s Inside Man. Check that out too.
Catch The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 at 4.30pm Eastern on Sundance TV.