Wednesday 26 September 2007

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) Joseph Sargent

Pelham One Two Three is a train in New York City subway system and we first see it as it gets hijacked by a crew led by Robert Shaw. He's Mr Blue and his outfit also comprises Mr Green, Mr Gray and Mr Brown, meaning that it doesn't take a genius to see how much Quentin Tarantino loved the movie. The real challenge here is how Mr Blue and his men can hold a subway car full of passengers against a million dollar ransom and expect not just to get away with it, but to get away period. But then that's the point. They're underground, in a tunnel and surround How are they going to do it?

One reviewer at IMDb described it as a 'film student's action picture', and I find that a perfect description. It's a lean, mean thriller without a scrap of fat. We're kept rivetted to the screen from the moment the film starts to the moment it ends. The story is detail oriented and the details are good. They make sense in precisely the same way that most details in most action films don't. Nothing is dumbed down and, even more surprising, much of it is clever without ever crossing the line from intellectual curiosity to chess game.

It's just real, thoroughly believably real, from the hostages who don't speak English to the mayor of New York City who has the flu. Stacks of bank notes fall over, people go to sleep, cars park in bad places. There are points in time where precisely nothing happens. There are no action heroes at all: nobody with rippling muscles, nobody who knows kung fu, nobody even like John McClane. What we have are real people like Walter Matthau as the transit cop, Lt Zachary Garber, versus real people like Robert Shaw or Martin Balsam. In fact they're so real that I know almost everyone in the cast without recognising almost anyone.

Most impressively, the dialogue is continually believable from all the many different characters. One of my pet peeves in Hollywood films that cast an Englishman as the bad guy is that they don't speak English. They talk about soccer instead of football or other such cultural differences. Here, Robert Shaw starts 'lieutenant' with 'left' instead of 'loo', and talks about torches while the NYC cops talk about flashlights. It's great to hear the crushing of pet peeves.

What astounds me most is that this film was not recognised more than it was at the time. Peter Stone's awesome screenplay, based on the novel by John Godey, was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award in 1975 but lost to The Godfather Part II. A year later it was nominated for a BAFTA award, bizarrely for the music and for Martin Balsam as a supporting actor. It does seem apparent that 1974 was a peach of a year, the point in which some semblance of sanity had been restored to film after decades under the restrictive Production Code and most of a decade in glorious artistic insanity. Like all the peaches of years, the sheer quality of the competition means that a lot of great films missed out.

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