Big Movie Flashback: 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' (1974)

Big Movie Flashback: 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' (1974)

The 1970s gave us disco, bell bottom jeans and the most authentic New York films committed to celluoid.

“Dog Day Afternoon” quickly comes to mind, as does “The French Connection.”

It’s too bad the 1974 thriller “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” isn’t mentioned in the same breath. “Pelham” might not pop off the screen like the aforementioned films. “Pelham” lacks a dynamic car chase and the emotional histrionics of vintage Al Pacino. It’s still a definitive New York story told with all the gusto the city demands.

The film, based on the novel by Morton Freedgood, knows exactly how New Yorkers act and react under duress. It ain’t pretty, but it’s glorious to behold all the same.

Walter Matthau plays Lt. Zachary Garber, a transit cop forced to deal with a hostage situation on the New York Subway System. Four armed men, led by Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), have commandeered the Pelham One Two Three line and want $1 million in cash in one hour’s time – or they’ll start killing passengers.

Garber doesn’t have much to work with, so he tries stalling the hijackers to give the city a chance to respond. Meanwhile, the hapless mayor and his inner circle worry about how giving in to the hostage takers will impact their poll numbers. The pedestrian “Pelham” remake illustrates just where today’s films too often go astray. While John Travolta burned hundreds of calories as the hyperventilating villain, Shaw rarely raises his voice.

Guess which screen baddie leaves more of an impression?

The plot in both films remains a model of efficiency, but the remake’s final 20 minutes becomes a silly, belabored affair. The original never suffers such a letdown.

“Pelham” knows how New Yorkers talk – and talk – and how they can’t help expressing themselves even in dire circumstances. The accents are all dead on, from Matthau talking about the “terlet” to his colleagues not willing to give those SOBs who stole their train an inch. “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” is all New York, its coal black humor, blunt honesty and ability to rally in times of crisis.

They don’t make ’em like “Pelham” anymore, even when they break the bank trying.