Jan 6, 2012

An Education: The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three ['74]

Dir: Joseph Sargent

Why is this on the syllabus?
I saw Tony Scott's remake of this movie when it opened in cinemas a couple of years ago, and gave it what was probably, on reflection, a slightly over generous review (essentially saying that it was fine, but totally unremarkable). This first version of the story is a film I've had it in the back of my mind that I need to see for many many years, thanks largely to Quentin Tarantino, who credits Pelham with inspiring the colour coded character names for Reservoir Dogs.

I've also got a particular fondness for crime films, and while this may not be considered in the first rank of the genre's classics, it is an influential and well regarded film that I haven't seen, from a period when Hollywood was turning out great crime movies seemingly on a constant loop.

What did I learn?
Well, let's call it revision, and say that the topic we covered today is why remakes are almost always inferior. Tony Scott's LOOK AT MEEE, I'M MAKING A FUCKING MOVIE style isn't really suited to this story. For the most part it's a claustrophobic tale of four men - Mr Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr Green (Martin Balsam), Mr Grey (Hector Elizondo) and Mr Brown - who hijack a New York Subway train and 17 of its passengers, and demand that the city pay them a million dollars within an hour, or they will begin killing one hostage a minute. That's when it's best, on the train and in the headquarters of the Transit Police, as Walter Matthau locks horns with Shaw over the radio.

While Scott sought to liven things up with snazzy angles, manipulated colours and a thumping cutting rhythm, director Joseph Sargent, a veteran even at this point, keeps the focus squarely on his stellar cast, favouring a sedate camera style and reasonably lengthy shots which heighten both the tension and the sense of a mano a mano struggle between Blue and Matthau's Zachary Garber. Robert Shaw is great as Mr Blue, his absolute resolve and total calmness are chilling (and betray a possible influence on an iconic villain to follow; Hans Gruber). I also like that the film doesn't really dig into his backstory (outside of a couple of broad hints and the fact that he's British), as a criminal without a motive, in this case aside from the money itself, is always scarier. The other villains also do good work; Balsam is effective as the conflicted Green and Elizondo unrecognisable as the dangerous Grey. Matthau, too, is as good as ever; always America's rumpled, working class, everyman, he comes across as just a simple guy doing his job well in circumstances that are a little unusual, but there's no grandstanding, no big hero moment, even when he figures out something important it's just another part of just another day.

I appreciated this low key style, it makes the events seem more real, and when you've got a constrained thriller like this it's important that we as an audience buy into the situation, and when we're on the train, or sitting at Garber's desk, the whole thing feels very credible.

Unfortunately the film gets broader when it opens up beyond those two arenas, and that doesn't completely work for it. Scenes with Lee Wallace as an ill and unpopular mayor and Tony Roberts as his deputy feel like they are teleported in from a different film (an unfunny and overly blunt satire, for the record) and a lot of the other police and transit department characters also feel too broad (though Jerry Stiller is funny in a small role, and in a way that works when it plays off Matthau). Visually it's not the most stylish piece, but Sargent held my attention with his tight grip on the script, and his visuals serve to help communicate the story rather than dazzle us with visual flash.

The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three may not quite ascend to the first rank of seventies crime classics, but it's an engaging heist movie that is intelligently scripted and effectively puts you in the shoes of the characters thanks to strong acting and direction. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Educate yourself
If you buy The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three though these links you'll be getting the movie and helping out 24FPS at no extra cost. Awesome!

Next Lesson: Nashville

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