If there’s one service that “Robin’s Underrated Gems” loves to provide, it’s paying tribute to underappreciated classics that have been needlessly remade by Hollywood during the last several years. Or, more specifically, movies that have spawned remakes that many people don’t even know are remakes. When Tony Scott’s version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was released last year, I’m willing to bet that a large majority of younger audiences had no idea that it was a remake. While a film like the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three may be well-known by a hardcore film buffs like myself, I’ve come to realize that not everybody in my age bracket is prone to going back and watching these older films, so when they watch a remade version, they often have no preconceived notions about it. Personally, I thought Tony Scott’s version of Pelham was a perfectly decent thriller, but it suffered from Scott’s flashy, overbearing visual style and it lacked the wit, humour and colourful New York atmosphere of the original. In other words, it just seemed completely unnecessary. The 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a superb crime drama that’s a very effective mixture of suspense and colourful, cynical comedy, and is probably one of the greatest New York movies of all time. In spite of its qualities, however, it’s still highly underrated and doesn’t get near the recognition it deserves. I feel it only appropriate that I start off this column with a montage of clips set to David Shire’s outstanding music score from the film. I consider this to be one of the more underrated film scores of all time, and if this theme doesn’t put you in the mood to watch this, nothing will!
The film is based on a best-selling novel of the same name by John Godey and manages to be a substantial improvement over it. The “Pelham 123” portion of the title refers to the name of the hijacked subway train, which is classified by the station it originally came from and the time that it left. Believe it or not, the New York City Transit Authority became so superstitious after this movie came out that they literally banned all of their trains from ever leaving at Pelham station at 1:23! At the beginning of the film, the train is hijacked by four men with submachine guns, who are all disguised in hats, trench coats, glasses and fake moustaches, which kind of makes them resemble Groucho Marx. Their names are Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman). Hmmmm, you think Quentin Tarantino might have been a fan of this film? One of the most unsurprising changes they made in the remake was deciding not to name the criminals after colours. That probably would have made many people assume that the Pelham remake was ripping off Reservoir Dogs when in actuality, it was Tarantino who was paying homage this film. Anyway, the gang detaches one of the cars from the rest of the train and park it in the middle of the tunnel where they hold eighteen people hostage. Mr. Blue then calls Transit Authority Lieutenant Garber (Walter Matthau) on the radio and demands that $1 million be delivered within one hour in exchange for the hostages or he will start shooting them. Before you make any Dr. Evil jokes, please keep in mind that this is $1 million in 1974 dollars.
The hijacking of a subway train seems like such a ridiculous crime for a group of criminals to try and pull off, but that’s part of the genius of this plot. Throughout the entire movie, all the other characters are commenting about how stupid the plan is and how the bad guys could not possibly escape and get away with it. However, the character of Mr. Blue is established as such a brilliantly smart villain that you know he’s thought out every last detail and would never attempt a scheme like this without a foolproof escape plan. His strength as a villain lies in the way he frustrates the heroes since they know the guy’s clever enough to have an ingenious escape plan, but they just cannot figure out what it is. Robert Shaw was one of the most enjoyable actors to watch throughout the course of the seventies and he’s at the top his game here. John Godey’s original novelization of Pelham was a good enough read, but the film is a big improvement over it for two main reasons. The biggest drawback of the novel is that it constantly cut back and forth between the point-of-views of all the different characters, but never provided one main protagonist for the reader to identify with. The film version compensates for this by taking the relatively minor character of Lt. Garber from the novel, greatly expanding his role and casting the wonderful Walter Matthau in the part. Garber is established as a curmudgeonly individual who has obviously become very cynical and burnt-out by his many years working for the Transit Authority, but he’s also a shrewd thinker, so in the middle of a crisis, he will shine through. Matthau uses his dry wit and sarcastic sense of humour to turn Garber into an incredibly likable hero, and the constant cat-and-mouse banter between him and Mr. Blue is a delight. The screenplay for Pelham was adapted by Peter Stone (who also wrote the wonderful Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn thriller, Charade) and he provides the second element that makes the film an improvement over the novel: a wonderfully cynical sense of humour. Few films have done a better job at balancing suspense and comedy than this one, as it manages to create a lot of tension while also delivers a decent amount of laughs at the same time.
It’s often been said that the best New York movies practically turn the city into a character of its own and that certainly rings true for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. The story garners a lot of humour from the idea that a lot of New Yorkers are much more concerned with how a subway hijacking will inconvenience them rather than the lives of the hostages. Even the bumbling incompetent N.Y.C. mayor whines about the hijackers having the nerve to pull this off on a day where he’s got the flu. Apparently, the filmmakers had a lot of trouble securing permission from the N.Y.C. Transit Authority to film in the subway system, and their frustrations with the situation are practically right there on-screen as almost every Transit Authority character in this movie is portrayed as a hilariously grumpy, foul-mouthed asshole who only cares about how much the hijacking is screwing up their job (“Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents? To live forever?!”). Virtually every role in this film, from the cops to the subway employees to the hostages, is perfectly cast and they’re each given their own distinct, colourful personality. It’s also quite fun to spot the number of future sitcom stars who pop up in this film. Earl Hindman, who portrays Mr. Brown, would go on to play the role of Wilson on Home Improvement, so this is your chance to finally see the guy without a fence in front of his face. Doris Roberts of Everybody Loves Raymond fame makes a memorable impression in a one-scene bit part as the mayor’s wife, and Jerry Stiller is delightful in the prominent role of Garber’s partner and provides my favourite line in the film (“Even great men have to pee”). Sure, some of the jokes on display here are corny and dated, but they still paint a very nostalgic picture of New York City in the 1970s. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s wonderful ending. Tony Scott’s Pelham remake pretty much fell off the rails in the last act by climaxing with a traditional chase scene and shootout, but the original film doesn’t succumb to that formula. It concludes with a terrific game of cat-and-mouse between Garber and one of the villains, which builds up to a brilliantly satisfying comeuppance and climaxes with what may be one of the greatest closing shots in cinema history. I remember when Roger Ebert wrote his review of the Pelham remake, he started off with the line: “There’s not much wrong with it, except that there’s not much really right with it”. I’d say that sums up the film and most remakes in general just perfectly. The remake may be serviceable and technically well-made, but what’s the point in watching it when you can just go back and watch the original? It always saddens me when people say they liked a vastly inferior remake when they don’t even know the original exists in the first place. I guess that’s why it’s up to film geeks like myself to keep the legacy of underappreciated classics like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three alive.