The original Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the quintessential irritable New York movie. Everyone in it is pissed off; the hijacking of the titular subway train is a goddamn hassle citywide. That’s what keeps the film so funny — nobody behaves like movie characters, they behave like New Yorkers, except perhaps for cool-as-ice Brit Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), who’s running the heist.
It’s odd that Pelham came out eleven months before Dog Day Afternoon, a classic that sacrificed thrills and wham-bang for enduring character moments. Pelham, like the later Die Hard, has exactly as much characterization as is needed to keep the machine going and not one drop more. Smartly edited (one of the cutters was the ace Jerry Greenberg) and grittily shot (by Owen Roizman, perhaps the most underrated cinematographer of the ’70s), this is a dazzling machine, workmanlike yet still cool enough to linger in the minds of hipsters like Quentin Tarantino (who swiped the color-coded criminal bit for Reservoir Dogs) and the Beastie Boys (who gave it a shout-out in “Sure Shot,” off 1994’s Ill Communication).
Mr. Blue leads three other men — former conductor Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), rejected Mafioso Mr. Gray (Hector Elizondo), and stammering Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman, whose forehead would later grace eight seasons of Home Improvement as the wise neighbor Wilson). They intend to soak New York City for one million dollars, and if they don’t get it within an hour they’ll kill one passenger a minute. Enter transit cop Garber (Walter Matthau), interrupted in the middle of giving visiting Japanese transit execs a tour; we sense that he’d almost rather be dealing with the hijackers.
Pelham wastes little time in taking off, and most of it is concerned with the logistics of meeting Mr. Blue’s demands. Robert Shaw’s stoic equipoise rubs up against the hectic grouchiness of his surroundings, even Mr. Blue’s own men, while Garber is one of the few cool heads on his side. (An amusingly unflappable Jerry Stiller is Garber’s cop crony, while Doris Roberts turns up as the ailing mayor’s wife; this sure was an inadvertent nexus for sitcom actors of the ’90s.) Surly humor powers the movie as much as the ticking-clock premise does; some anonymous cop or other New Yorker will bitch about something, and a second later we’re into the next scene. It’s edited as much for comedy as for excitement. Set-up, punchline, bam.
There was a time when cities in movies were allowed as much character as anyone on the screen; Pelham came in the midst of many similar urban thrillers, and it could be argued that its true star is New York. Dog Day had Pacino; The French Connection had Hackman; this movie has Walter Matthau, who slumps and blends in. He holds the screen, but many other authentic, lived-in actors share it with him; Dick O’Neill, as one of Garber’s associates, has a great moment when he reacts to the killing of the transit supervisor: “Caz? Fat Caz? Aw, shit.” That’s New York talking.
It’s not nearly as soulful as Dog Day Afternoon would prove to be, but it’s a terrific, idiosyncratic entertainment, paced like the wind and dunked like a donut into the irascible coffee of ethnicity. Despite the surliness, though, the mayor rises from his sickbed to approve the million-dollar ransom, and Garber moves heaven and earth to make sure those eighteen passengers make it home safely. For all its grit and growl, it’s a surprisingly generous film.