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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

December 22nd, 2008
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My father recommended this film to me, years ago, and from the first time I watched it I knew right away that he was right on the money in declaring it to be a masterful work.

Made in 1974, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three stars Walter Matthau as New York City transit chief Lt. Garber, called upon to deal with the unprecedented hijkacking of a subway train (the titular Pelham One Two Three).  Robert Shaw leads the armed men who have perpetrated the heist and seem to have planned for every possible eventuality.  What follows is one of the great cinematic battle of wits, as Matthau’s Lt. Garber struggles to figure out just what the criminals’ goals are and how he can prevent what seems to be a perfectly planned crime.

There are a number of movies in which New York City figures in, almost as a main character, and The Taking of Pelham One Two is certainly one of the most notable.  In so many little ways, the film captures the feel and personality of the city.  It is a magical combination of the actors (both the large number of people with speaking parts as well as all the background players), the dialogue (and the accents with which the dialogue is spoken!), and the sets… along with that special something about the personality of 1970’s film stock that puts us right into the middle of the beating heart of New York.  Personality is a good word, because it is precisely by setting of this heist story in the specific locale of the New York City subway system that the movie gains its distinct personality.  I didn’t live in the city in the 1970’s, but after spending two hours with this movie I feel like I did.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the film’s star is Walter Matthau.  His Lt. Garber is the quintessential New Yorker — world-weary and bedraggled, yet possessing of an incredible stubbornness that just won’t permit him to allow Robert Shaw to get the best of him.  Matthau is phenomenally compelling — a flawed man (he is shockingly rude and condescending to a group of Japanese visitors early in the film, and there is also an amusingly awkward encounter with an African American Police Inspector) and yet extraordinarily likable.  Equally compelling is Robert Shaw as Matthau’s opponent (referred to only as Mr. Blue). Mr. Blue is intense, intelligent, and very dangerous.  Watching his plan unfold step by step, the audience races along with Lt. Garber in trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three  isn’t a terribly well-known film from the ’70s, but it’s one of my favorites.  Check it out!

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