The Criterion Channel has devoted a substantial amount of their September programming to tales of the Big Apple, titled “New York Stories”, in remembrance of the 9/11 attacks that occurred 20 years ago. The collection of 61 films spans from Charlie Chaplin to Noah Baumbach – over 100 years of cinema. It’s a staggering amount of history dedicated to one of the greatest cities in the world.

The question is, as always, where do I begin?

In recent years I’ve found myself gravitating towards films of the 1960s and ’70s, a combination of counterculture themes and gritty motifs to blame for my interest, no doubt. Those were the days of prominent film movements such as New Hollywood and the French, Czech and Japanese New Waves, to name just a few. It was “out with the old, in with the new”, and it was global. The aftereffects of several crippling wars unquestionably played a role in the confluence of conditions that fueled these movements.

I’m sort of going off on a tangent here, but the freshness of the films in that era is still palpable in 2021. They didn’t make films like that before then, and they don’t make films like that now. Personally I find all of it fascinating.

And it was this fascination and curiosity that guided me toward the topic of today’s post – Joseph Sargent’s white-knuckle subway thriller, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

I looked through Sargent’s IMDB page and found that he’s done LOADS of television movies and only a handful of features, including the horror anthology Nightmares (1983) and one entry in a major franchise, Jaws: The Revenge (1987). Not much to include on a Hall of Fame plaque.

Which surprised me, because The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is some HOF stuff. Here’s the synopsis from IMDB:

In New York, armed men hijack a subway car and demand a ransom for the passengers. Even if it’s paid, how could they get away?

A perfectly simple set-up.

Not mentioned in that blurb is the protagonist, New York City Transit Police Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau), who deftly juggles psychotic ransom demands, a jelly-spined mayor, impatient Transit Authority workers, and the hot-headed NYPD with glib professionalism. It’s unique casting and it works because of how well Matthau balances the humor and thriller aspects of the script. He’s a masterclass in shifting gears, requiring only a nanosecond to flip the tension. One moment he’s humorously quipping with murderous hijacker, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), and the next he’s grabbing a co-worker by the shirt and getting tough with him. Between this film, Charade (1963) [write-up here], and Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971), I’ve been watching more of Matthau’s work lately and finding a new appreciation for it.

Really the entire cast is sensational. From Shaw’s psychotic mercenary to Martin Balsam’s disgruntled former train conductor and Jerry Stiller’s frazzled Lt. Rico, the film has a cast of characters. Also of note is a very young Hector Elizondo playing a hot-headed baddie looking to shoot first and ask questions later.

Unfortunately, what comes part-and-parcel with the 1970s anachronisms is brazen misogyny and racism. Sargent doesn’t use these traits as a thematic element to comment on, but rather as a systemic presence that simply exists. That choice, alone, speaks volumes.

This isn’t a world anybody likes. There’s a cynicism dripping off the screen when the Transit Authority personnel are more concerned about keeping their trains on-time than with the lives of the hostages in peril. Details like that cement its stature as a time-capsule of an ugly period in this country.

I really can’t stress how well-made and truly entertaining and excellent this film is. Maybe I’m the last one to hop on-board, but it was a pleasant surprise and another gem from the diamond mine of the 1970s.

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