It’s a classic ticking time bomb problem.
To really appreciate Joseph Sargent’s 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, it helps to know something about the context. Thanks in part to the 1973 oil crisis, in 1974, the entire nation was in a recession, and the finances of New York City were a disaster. Just one year later, the city would be on the brink of bankruptcy, refused loans by banks and federal assistance by U.S. President Gerald Ford (prompting the infamous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”). Dirt and crime seemed to be everything, including the subway system, which broke down frequently, yet millions of people relied on it daily to get to work, school, or wherever else they needed to go.
I relied on the New York City subway system for over a decade when I lived in Manhattan (true fact: I didn’t own a car until I moved to Missouri, and I was well in to my fourth decade by then), and I regard public transportation systems in general as a great blessing. They free you from the need to own a car while also acting as a great social leveler, because grey-suited power players and folks who are just scraping by take the subway. The downside is that, should anything go wrong, a subway car can make you feel trapped in a way that is seldom experienced above ground. Both feelings are captured in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three—the experience of sharing your commuting space with a diverse crowd of random people, and the panic that can arise and intensify when you feel trapped in a closed environment.
Pelham, based on a bestselling thriller of the same name by “John Godey” (the pen name of Morton Freedgood), is a caper film—the caper in question being the hijacking of a subway car. Four similarly-dressed (hat, glasses, trench coat, fake mustache) men get on the downtown #6 train at separate stops, each carrying a package of some sort. (The train is called “Pelham One Two Three because it left the Pelham Bay station at 1:23.) They look ordinary enough to not draw attention to themselves, until one pulls a gun on the train conductor.
Referring to each other by code names (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown—think Quentin Tarantino was inspired by this film?—played by Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Earl Hindman, respectively), they proceed to take the 17 passengers plus the conductor on the first car hostage and separate it from the rest of the train. Mr. Blue then demands a ransom of $1 million be paid within an hour (by 3:13 p.m.), threatening to kill one hostage per minute after that time if he doesn’t get the cash.
If you’re a properly cynical New Yorker you might be thinking “well, he’ll run out of people to shoot by 2:31, and then he won’t look so bright” but that approach wouldn’t make much of a movie, would it? The mayor (Lee Wallace) is home with the flu when he’s informed of the ransom demand and initially is reluctant to comply. He eventually does decide to pay it, but there are practical challenges involved with getting that much cash together quickly and delivering it as the hijackers demand. It’s a classic ticking time bomb problem, with Transit Authority (TA) cop Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) negotiating with Mr. Blue while other city departments deploy to get the cash and deliver it. At the same time, Garber tries to piece together information about the four hijackers—one has a British accent, one has a cold, one obviously knows a lot about the subway system—because whether the cash is delivered on time or not, they still hope to catch the hijackers.
Pelham was shot largely on location by cinematographer Owen Roizman, with the somewhat reluctant cooperation of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (they were afraid of copycat crimes, but a payment of $250,000 plus the purchase of hijack insurance eased their fears). Much use was made of an abandoned station on the IND Line and of various street locations, while the TA control center scenes were shot on a soundstage. The authenticity gained by using using real locations, coupled with a jazzy, pounding score by David Shire, gives Pelham a gritty feel that recalls Manhattan before it got Disney-fied. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is distributed on Blu-Ray and DVD by Kino Lorber, with a street date of July 5. Extras on the disc include a commentary track by film historian and programmer Jim Healy and actor/filmmaker Pat Healy (they identify themselves as fans of this film, rather than people involved in its creation), interviews with actor Hector Elizondo, composer David Shire, and editor Jerry Greenberg, a “Trailers from Hell” segment with Josh Olson, an animated montage of stills and posters, and the original theatrical trailer.