Viking Night: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
By Bruce Hall
October 23, 2012
The story of Pelham One Two Three begins with a literary potboiler by the same name. It is the thrilling (fictional) story of how they (fictionally) did it, and of the brave (and equally fictional) New York City Transit Police assigned to hunt them down. While not quite a classic, the novel was a taut, successful thriller of the kind that gave studio executives naughty nocturnal fantasies. So, they made a movie out of it. While also not quite a classic, it was a taut, successful thriller of the kind that has obsessive nuts like me still talking about it nearly four decades later.
True to the splashy title, the film wastes no time establishing who the good guys are, although director Joe Sargent (who would later give us the gift of Jaws: The Revenge) sets a simplistic tone early by relying entirely on contrast to differentiate heroes from villains. Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) is an aging member of the Transit Police whose day consists of such mundane tasks as escorting Japanese dignitaries around the control center. A series of cutaways establishes not only that Garber’s job is boring as hell, but that he must have done time at Pearl Harbor. Let’s just say at the time this film was made, political correctness was still a shimmering, rainbow gleam in some spaced out hippie’s eye.
Meanwhile, the hijackers go about their business in much the same way. They calmly case out the train, take it over and drop a few period racial and sexual insults at the passengers for good measure. In the process, we learn a little about how subway trains work, and the citywide organism that keeps them running on time. We also learn how sub-machine guns work, and that Zachary Garber picked the wrong week to quit smoking. It’s all very trite, but within ten minutes we’ve established that our hero is a desensitized drone who nonetheless takes his boring job seriously, his adversaries are desperate men with a daring plan, and that it’s going to be a long day for all the black and Asian characters.
You’ll be glad all these little details are addressed early. Pelham is a decent ride, but it feels a just a tad longer than 104 minutes.
The terrorists take on code names to conceal their identities, and are led by the nefarious Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), a calculating presence who clearly has military training. Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) is a stuttering fool who seems a little out of his element. Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) is just the kind of psychotic cutthroat you don’t want on a mission that requires clockwork timing and coordination. Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) doesn’t seem like a criminal at all; his persistent sneezing and hand wringing makes Woody Allen look like a stud. They’re a motley bunch, which leads to inevitable conflict – but for now, the train system quickly backs up once they take the train, leaving the city in panic. Mr. Blue ends up in contact with contact with Garber and demands one million dollars ransom, apparently unaware of how silly that will sound 38 years later.
Everything is going just as planned, and it looks like it’s going to be a long day for the Transit Police. Garber and his snarky sidekick Patrone (Jerry Stiller) race against time to coordinate crisis response with the Mayor’s office, appease the hijacker’s demands, and manage the rest of the train system, all with a watchful eye on the clock. Mr. Blue has promised to start killing people after an hour, and proves early on that he’s quite willing to follow through. So for a while, Pelham is far more gritty and tight than you’d expect. There are a lot of moving parts to a train system, and the added bonus of this one being in a tunnel adds the kind of pressure that you usually can’t get anywhere but in a plane or submarine. The situation underground is dreary and tense, with a SWAT team keeping an eye the train as the killers taunt them from afar. In the control room, Garber and his team sweat bullets as what first seemed like a sick joke proves a very real and very lethal threat.