CRIMEWATCH: The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three

I’ve never much cared for the title The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. To me it’s clumsy and uninformative. I much prefer the clearer-eyed, exploitation cinema-aligned “Subway Hijack!” or “TAKE The Train!” Either way, The Taking of Pelham remains one of the best hijack-themed movies of the 1970s.

For the record, the title of the film refers to Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, NY. That’s this particular train’s final stop. “One Two Three” (1:23 PM), refers to the train’s scheduled time of departure.

This urban caper involves four men who hijack a NYC subway train and demand a million dollars for the safe return of the passengers/hostages on board. It’s a preposterous idea of course, and an MTA employee speaks for most of us when, during negotiations with the hijackers he blurts out: “Where exactly do you think you’re going to go? You’re underground!” Well, that’s for the hijackers to know and the authorities (and us) to figure out.

So who would dare to hijack a subway train? Well, there’s Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), a cool, detached European nationalist adept at summing up people and situations; Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) a hot-head Puerto Rican who likes the ladies, loves the “N-word,” and has no respect for authority; Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) a reluctant participant with an easy to mock stutter; and Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), a former MTA employee who’s carrying out the heist at the same time that he’s battling a bad case of the Flu.

On hand to negotiate with the hijackers—and deal with pesky matters like a visiting group of Japanese “suits” that are in town for a tour of the MTA offices, and the almost complete shutdown of the New York City transit system, is Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) and Frank Corell (Dick O’Neill), plain-faced, coffee guzzling and chain smoking middle aged men who’ve been on the job for decades and have a longstanding adversarial relationship.

Based on the best-selling novel by John Godey, director Joseph Sargent is blessed with charismatic, decrepit, indifferent 1970s New York City as his backdrop. Screenwriter Peter Stone’s script is filled with wry humor, expletives, and the ambivalence of the worn. And the pictures exciting moments—including rare in-the-tunnels on-track photography, are punctuated by David Shire’s thumping soundtrack.

A spectacular high speed chase through the city streets, a visit to Gracie Mansion, and a peek at the inner (non) workings of the MTA are memorable. So is the spectacle of boxes of real one hundred dollar bills being thrown onto tables and counted in a bank. “I thought a million dollars would be much bigger than this,” observes the cop charged with delivering the loot. His partner’s response is priceless: “It’s not how big it is baby, it’s what it can buy!”

Remade in 1998 for TV and in 2009 for the big screen, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is essential seventies cinema. Tens across the board.

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Josiah Howard

Josiah Howard is the author of four books including “Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide” (now in a fourth printing). His writing credits include articles for the American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Readers Digest. A veteran of more than one hundred radio broadcasts, Howard also lectures on cinema and is a frequent guest on entertainment news television.

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