(#8 in a 12-part series to be printed at the beginning of each month)
Manny P. here…
THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE, TWO, THREE – One of the finest films ever made with a really lousy title. Starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, James Broderick, Jerry Stiller, Hector Elizondo, and Tony Roberts, this action-comedy-thriller was the forerunner of the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series of movies; plus it spawned a 2009 high-tech remake featuring John Travolta and Denzel Washington.
Most of the film was produced on location with the cooperation of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Mayor John Lindsay. An insurance policy was taken out to make sure no one would get a similar idea to hijack a subway train. Only then, the green light was given to produce this motion picture.
Critics loved the film for the bureaucratic nature of the heroes, which provided a convincing dichotomy to trigger-happy villains. Particularly realistic was the banter between Matthau, Stiller, and Shaw.
This project made Walter Matthau a star. He emerged from the shadow of Jack Lemmon, and others in starring roles. His career flourished for the rest of his life. And, due to the massive success of The Sting and Jaws, Robert Shaw became an A-List rugged actor, who could elevate the quality of any movie. He was appropriately menacing in Pelham.
The casting of this film was pinpoint perfect. Every character looks like they have spent their entire lives in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens. With the exception of The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon, no production made during this time was more effective in its use of location filming.
This was director Joseph Sargent’s best work, which included White Lightning, MacArthur, and Jaws: The Revenge. Screenwriter Peter Stone had experience in writing comedic-thrillers, such as Charade. Pelham’s conclusion (which I wouldn’t dare reveal here) is superior classic cinema!
The David Shire-score was critically acclaimed for its raw, in-your-face quality in 1974. By today’s standards, it’s really dated. The composer was married to actress Talia Shire, and she openly influenced his work.
Unfortunately, stereotypes of Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, and Jews were used to facilitate the comedy. It wasn’t necessary, but this type of humor was typical in scripts during this era.
One of the finest actors to emerge in the post-Studio Era was Martin Balsam. This versatile everyman appeared in iconic films including On the Waterfront, Twelve Angry Men, Psycho, Breakfast at Tiffanys, Cape Fear, Seven Days in May, Catch-22, and All the President’s Men. He received a nomination from the National Board of Review for his role in The Carpetbaggers, and was awarded an Oscar for Supporting Actor for A Thousand Clowns.
He was also comfortable on television with appearances in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, Murder She Wrote, and a co-starring role on Archie Bunker’s Place.
Balsam’s understated performances made him of favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, and Lee Strasberg. He was a welcome addition to any quality production.
The Writer’s Guild of America awarded The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 a well-deserved nomination in 1975. The 2009 remake confirmed filmmakers were paying attention. It also suggested the 1974 production was forgotten by today’s audiences. This flick should be in anyone’s personal DVD library if you like great movie-making.
Until next time> “never forget”