Review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is nothing to occasion the breaking-off of all engagements in order to go see it, but it delivers a good time; and while TV-trained Joseph Sargent directs it crisply enough, what lifts it above telefilm-level expectations is Peter Stone’s very bright job of scripting. Taking the John Godey bestseller as a serviceable basic structure, Stone has devised the most adroit, yet regionally credible, verbal business for virtually everybody who opens his mouth in the course of the picture; a character may lack a name but he won’t be permitted to contribute dead space on the soundtrack. Godey’s own dialogue was not without pretensions to smartness, but all his ethnic fussiness over the black militant among the subway hostages is swept out of mind by the overdressed jiveass’s first line to a coolly amused Robert Shaw: “Whatsamatter, dude, ain’tchoo never seen a sunrise before?” Somebody decided to change the book’s black transit cop Clive Prescott into a jowly Lieut. Garber tailor-made for Walter Matthau, but Stone redresses the balance in a nifty throwaway: Garber, coming face to face late in the film with a highly competent, encouragingly authoritative police inspector he’s known only by voice (Julius Harris), executes a visual and verbal stumble: “Oh I didn’t know you were a—I thought you were a taller man—or shorter—what the hell …”

Opting for straight-line suspense, the filmmakers had to forgo subjective cutaways like the plainclothes cop’s reflections on his tortuous relationship with a Third-World-infatuated feminist; again, Stone writes in a more bedrock commentary on metropolitan backsliding by refusing to reveal which of the hostages is the cop, so that the police monitoring the stolen train are led to wonder whether it’s a man or a woman and chauvinistically calculate a woman’s chances for taking effective action against the hijackers. All things considered, the movie comes out on balance well ahead of the book: the Matthau character is permitted a greater mobility within the film, to be in at the kill as it were, and that’s good movie sense; the grimly competent British mercenary Ryder (Shaw) is allowed to be true to his character in an, uh, electrifyingly apt climax, and the ending is tied off much more satisfyingly. Besides Matthau and Shaw, Martin Balsam. Jerry Stiller (as Matthau’s partner), and Dick O’Neill (as a dispatcher) deserve special mention; and Joseph Sargent effectively contrasts the dynamic bigness of urban avenues and the cramped, dark arena of the subway car and tunnels in a way that scarcely came automatically.

RTJ

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE
Direction: Joseph Sargent. Screenplay: Peter Stone, after the novel by John Godey. Cinematography: Owen Roizman. Editing: Jerry Greenberg. Art direction: Gene Rudolf. Music: David Shire. Production: Gabriel Katzka, Eugene J. Scherick.
The Players: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman, James Broderick, Dick O’Neill, Jerry Stiller, Tony Roberts, Lee Wallace, Julius Harris.

Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson


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