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USA 1974
Directed by
Joseph Sargent
104 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, The (1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three starts off promising to be one of those gritty, low budget crime movies like The French Connection (1971) or Prime Cut (1973) that the ‘70s were so good for. By-and-large it delivers although the last act is too schematic to deliver the thrills that are implicitly promised.

Four armed men (Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Earl Hindman  and Héctor Elizondo) hijack a NYC subway train and hold 18 passengers hostage demanding a million dollars for their release. They set a one hour time limit for delivery of the money and threaten to kill a hostage for every minute beyond that.  At mission control the Transit Authority head cop, Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau), has to deal with the hijackers’ leader (Shaw), a former mercenary calling himself Mr Blue. 

Based on a novel of the same name by John Godey, adapted for the screen by Peter Stone, the film immediately engages us as the four similarly-dressed men board the subway train then commandeer the front carriage. All this is done with nicely judged understatement but nevertheless a palpable sense of determination. This is extended to the negotiations with mission control, Shaw and Matthau convincingly playing cat-and-mouse with each other, Graber being the mouse.  Once again, aside from the question of how the hijackers are planning to get away, it is the everyday realism with which the situation is framed that keeps us hooked. 

Unfortunately director Joseph Sargent (who had a lengthy career after this in television movies), lets the final act, in which of course, things go pear-shaped for the hijackers, get away from him, with what should have been handled with intensity being largely brushed aside although the final scene is well brought-off.

FYI:  The film was a huge commercial success, returning some $20m for a $4m investment. It was given a Tony Scott makeover in 2009 with Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the leads. Needless to say it made good the failings of the original as an action movie but at the cost of virtually everything that made the film so successful in the first place.

The hijackers’ colourful names were a gimmick famously re-used by Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs (1992). The film features a couple of dads of later stars, James Broderick, father to Matthew and Jerry Stiller, father to Ben.




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