This article was originally published on Cinephilia & Beyond
Only the amazing reaction that that picture has gotten, because at the time I was dreadfully unhappy with the fact that I was going to be doing another, a caper movie, you know, a feature that U.A. [United Artists] wanted me to do and… But however, there is a very important glitch in all of this. And what happened was, when I got to New York, U.A. sent me there of course, the Producers were not very happy with U.A’s selection because they had a Director of their own in mind. It started there. It then moved there from there and trickled down to the crew, which had resentment to this smart-ass Director being sent from Hollywood to show them how to make movies. Then I began to realize that there was an east coast, west coast rivalry going on. Which I had never imagined existed. I had no idea, it’s never, it never came up before. Even after I con—I reminded ‘em that I was basically a New Yorker, and that this was hometown for me, didn’t matter. I was from Hollywood and I was quite obviously the enemy. Now, that’s a hell of way to come into town to start a movie. Well, again, thank god for the Actors, ‘cause from Walter Matthau down, it was a joy. But the crew, the Producers, and especially the Production Manager gave me such hostility and such—bordering on contempt. Now, go try directing a movie where you spend ten weeks in the black hole of a New York subway with that cloud over you, and that you’re trying to ignore, and you had no one really to complain to because its very amorphous, you know, everybody will deny it. —Joseph Sargent
BA-DA-DA-DUM! Right from the start, David Shire’s propulsive, almost grating rhythm-based main score (set against a screen as black as a subway tunnel) for Joseph Sargents’ 1974 New York subway thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, is as tough, unyielding and in-your-face as the dirty, broke city in which the mostly subterranean action is set. It indicates a bold new style in both thriller scoring and chaotic character interaction. Classical moods are replaced by a modern layering of piercing horns, electronic-like keyboard riffs, and snazzy snares. Hard-grooving basslines crash against unremitting rumbling layers of snappy percussion and portentous brass, just like an echo of the busy underground commute of modern city life, where time, even if you aren’t a color-coded hood with a machine gun and a fake mustache, is money. Just as characters bitch and moan, gyp and fight to be heard over each other as the normal routine “meshugas” of Transit Authority Police Lt Zachary Garber’s (Walter Matthau) daily routine goes until Mr Blue (Robert Shaw) and his ruthless cronies upend it. “Who steals a subway train?” Garber muses. His deadpan colleague Lt Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller) cracks wise as to how they expect to get away—they’re going to fly it to Cuba.
Pelham has come to be considered a classic thriller, caustically, bitingly funny and exciting at the same time, a genuine slice of life reflection of a particular city at a particularly difficult time in its existence also, brilliantly shot in widescreen by The Exorcist cinematographer Owen Roizman. At the time though that city’s Village Voice critic Molly Haskell was witheringly dismissive, not just of the film, but her fellow citizens reflected on screen. “What four men do to a car of the Lexington Avenue Local in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is less of a highjack than a high joke. Or a low one. Who would pay a dollar ransom, much less a cool million, for this carful of Jesus freaks, screaming mothers and obnoxious children, wise old ethnics, fat lady winoes, superfly fags, prostitutes (everyone, in fact—and as regular rider I can testify to their verisimilitude—but you and me, suffering in silence!). What New Yorker would want his tax money to go towards redeeming this rancid assortment of useless humanity?” A desperate, flu-ridden mayor, whose wife persuades him the 17 freed hostages (and motorman) are guaranteed votes, perhaps. Or Garber, a clothing colorblind Columbo, who may be slow on the uptake, but is tenacious and methodical. A “Gesundheit” his “One more thing.”
Pelham is based on the 1973 novel by John Godey, the thriller pen name of author Morton Freedgood. The script was adapted by Peter Stone, who had written light, sub-Hitchcock frothy thrillers such as Charade and Arabesque for director Stanley Donen. Here, though, the humor is leavened with a drier, workaday wit, and is an intrinsic part of the drama. The plot is a peach. Four men, all with thick glasses, mustaches and wearing hats, topcoats and carrying a long cardboard box (hiding semi-automatic machine guns), individually board the southbound Lexington-Pelham subway 6 train (the train is designated Pelham One Two Three to indicate its point and time of origin) at different platforms. The four men all intentionally look both alike and non-descript but are distinguished by their differently colored hats. In charge is the icy and quietly spoken English former mercenary Mr Blue (Robert Shaw), so confident in his plan he brings a book of crossword puzzles to while away the time while the ransom is being delivered. Then there is the flu-ridden Mr Green (Martin Balsam), a disgruntled former subway motorman (and no born killer), Mr B-b-b-Brown (the stuttering Earl Hindman, ironically best known as Tim Allen’s unseen neighbor in Home Improvement) and the psychotic Mr Grey (Hector Elizondo), so ruthless the Mafia cast him out of their ranks. (Magpie director Quentin Tarantino is generally believed to have lifted the color-coding and identical dress style of criminals for Reservoir Dogs from Pelham.) They hijack the train, detach the motor car with a remaining 16 passengers, guard and motorman (played by Matthew Broderick’s dad, James Broderick), and proceed to hold the city to ransom for one million dollars. How do they expect to get away with it?
There is a feature on the car known as a deadman’s switch, in which the pressure of the driver’s hand must be applied to make the car travel. The signalman is astounded to learn the thing can travel backwards. The crooks find a fictional way to override this. In the novel, there is more to it. “We’re making a movie, not a handbook on subway hijacking… I must admit the seriousness of Pelham never occurred to me until we got the initial TA reaction. They thought it potentially a stimulant—not to hardened professional criminals like the ones in our movie, but to kooks. Cold professionals can see the absurdities of the plot right off, but kooks don’t reason it out. That’s why they’re kooks. Yes, we gladly gave in about the ‘deadman feature.’ Any responsible filmmaker would if he stumbled onto something that could spread into a new form of madness.”—Joseph Sargent in the L.A Times, 1974. The Metropolitan Transit Authority were so jumpy they insisted on special insurance coverage in case of copycat attempts, and a disclaimer at the end of the film that they did not give advice on features to the film-makers. Ironically, the stipulation that seems most unrealistic was their demand that the subway cars featured be entirely free of graffiti. “New Yorkers are going to hoot when they see our spotless subway cars,” Sargent said to the L.A Times. “But the TA was adamant on that score. They said to show graffiti would be to glorify it. We argued that it was artistically expressive. But we got nowhere. They said the graffiti fad would be dead by the time the movie got out. I really doubt that.”
It could be argued that Pelham is highly influential on blue collar heroes like Bruce Willis’ fish-out-of-water cop John McClane in the Die Hard series, especially the “Simon Says” runaround distraction from a robbery plot set back in his native New York for Die Hard III. Harold Ramis’ Ghostbusters too owes it a heavy debt. Similar scenes of cheering and baying crowds on the streets as patrol cars howl through cleared traffic against a deadline (ransom or apocalyptic, “cats and dogs, living together!”), and the aforementioned shoring up of the Mayor’s parsimonious public servant (“17 sure votes”) is reprised in Ghostbusters with Bill Murray’s sly seduction of a harassed mayor—“If I’m right… Lenny, you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters.”
Matthau’s basset hound Garber is introduced snoozing as a female colleague palms him off with taking a group of visiting officials from Tokyo’s metro system on an impromptu tour of the control facility (he introduces Italian-American friend and colleague Rico as someone who “on weekends works for the mafia”). It’s the first indication of casual racism and misogyny in the workplace (watch Garber’s left eye twitch when during the initial contact from the hostage-takers he remembers “the monkeys” and their spokesperson thanks him for a “most illuminating” tour in flawless English.). Garber is pretty clueless in some respects. It takes him a long time to realize the crooks don’t have eyes above ground and so can lie about when the ransom is delivered, to stall for time. And also that they must have a workaround for the switch. For much of the film he communicates by radio with Julius Harris’ Inspector Daniels, an impressively basso profundo voiced character, obviously black. When Garber gets to meet him later as they race downtown, he stumbles, “Oh I thought you were a shorter guy… Oh, I don’t know what I thought,” with a dismissive wave of his hand. Daniels, a cool customer (who even wears shades in the subway!) gives his driver an “I’ve heard this shit a thousand times” side look, and they’re on their way. Another beautiful thing about the script is how it sets things up early on for a reveal later—gags about the electrified third rail, for instance. Or the cowardly, unpopular mayor trailing 22 points in the polls, who is persuaded to attend the scene. Later, an incredulous beat cop exclaims, “It’s the mayor!” and he is immediately booed (off-screen), never to be seen again. Or the undercover cop on the train, wisely weighing the odds, and waiting to reveal his presence (we the audience, have no idea who it is). Although Garber, ironically, insists on not presupposing it’s a man. This leads nicely to the cop, disguised as a hippy, injured on the track after eliminating Mr Brown from the fleeing hoods, being reassured by Garber, “Don’t worry miss, there’ll be an ambulance along in no time.”
In fact, pretty much every character, no matter how incidental, gets a little moment to shine, an eye roll here, a snappy line there. As The Dissolve said about the film, “Most of the movie’s humor comes from the same thing that ratchets up the movie’s tension: the thrilling hostility constantly wielded by every New Yorker against every other New Yorker. New York State’s motto is “Excelsior,” but New York City’s has always been “Fuck me? Fuck you!” No situation is complete without kibbitzing or argument, and everyone has to put their two cents in. Even the bystanders who are onscreen for mere moments. Even the hostages in danger, who can’t help telling their captors that the million-dollar ransom is “not so terrific.” They’re mostly pissed off their commute is on hold—except for the flat-out drunk lady who doesn’t wake until she slides up the bench as the train car finally comes to safe halt, sans hijackers. And maybe the young lady who decides cross-legged meditation is the answer—“Ommmm!” “Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents, to live forever?” subway dispatcher Frank Correll (Dick O’Neill) bitches. All he cares about is keeping the system moving. Or Tony Roberts’ Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle—“Wise up, for chrissake, we’re trying to run a city, not a goddamn democracy! Al, quit farting around—we’ve got to pay!” And the cop driving the ransom in a speeding patrol car, exulting, “I’ve always wanted to do this. We’re scaring the shit out of everyone!” His partner tells him he’s scaring the shit out of him too. Their boss mistakes the signal for a good-to-go as getting ready to storm the car, telling his chief that’s terrific, the men are really pumped. They have enough firepower down there to take out an army, as one very nervous transit patrolman (Nathan George) lurking in the shadows, his radio turned way low, is all too aware.
There’s almost too much layered detail to discuss about the film. It was shot in widescreen to emphasize the length of the enclosed car and the low ceilings of the abandoned subway tracks and stations used in the production. Matthau only shot down there once, when he has a showdown with Mr Blue after the methodology is worked out and the hijackers are making their escape. Matthau told the L.A Times, “There are bacteria down there that haven’t been discovered yet. And bugs. Big ugly bugs from the planet Uranus. They all settled in the New York subway tunnels. I saw one bug mug a guy. I wasn’t down there a long time—but long enough to develop the strangest cold I ever had. It stayed in my nose for five days, then went to my throat. Finally I woke up one morning with no voice at all, and they had to shut down for the day.”
The filmmakers used pre-flashing film as a safe way to get decent images in very dark filming situations. This led to a low-contrast image with heavy granularity. In high definition this now yields excellent detail. John French, Robert Shaw’s biographer, wrote that, “There were rats everywhere and every time someone jumped from the train, or tripped over the lines, clouds of black dust rose into the air, making it impossible to shoot until it had settled.” The electrified third rail was shut off and barriers wrapped around it so that if it was accidentally turned back on, it would short out. Shaw’s Mr Blue is phlegmatic about his capture, asking if the state carries the death penalty. When a perplexed Garber says no, Mr Blue calmly places his foot against the live rail and takes himself out. This just leaves the fourth man (Mr Blue executed Mr Grey for not following orders), who the cops have figured out must be an ex-driver with a gripe against the Transit Authority. Garber and Patrone begin a house to house search of said suspects, ending up at Mr Green’s crummy, tiny apartment (“Nice place,” Garber automatically small talks, eyes barely landing on anything. You wouldn’t want to touch anything, either). As Dan McCoy says in a discussion for The Dissolve, “One of the reasons this last sequence works so well is that Martin Balsam is the most sympathetic of the ‘bad guys.’ He’s the one who doesn’t shoot anybody, he’s suffering through a bad cold, and—depending on whether you believe his story—he was dicked over by the MTA, so he has a legitimate gripe against them. Thus you spend the last scene half wishing for Matthau to catch him, and half wishing he gets away, which ironically creates more suspense than if he was a conventional baddie.”
Remember how lines and such early on lead to a payoff later? The film ends on a classic dolly into Matthau’s New Yorker “Are you kidding me?” expression, based, according to his son Charlie, on Matthau imitating his son imitating Charlie Chaplin. As Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times states, it’s “like watching a marathon runner take a victory lap. He earned the medal, and he wants the whole theatre to know it.” BA-DA-DA-DUM!
Screenwriter must-read: Peter Stone’s screenplay for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray (Kino Lorber’s 42nd Anniversary Special Edition) of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
In his nearly five-hour Archive interview, Joseph Sargent (1925-2014) talks about his early years as an actor on stage and in television. He describes learning the directing craft while shooting the television series Lassie, Gunsmoke, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Among the other shows he recalls are his now-classic episode for Star Trek, The Corbomite Maneuver. Sargent outlines the many television movies he has directed, which have earned him four Emmy Awards. He describes the challenging location shooting in the subways of New York City for the film The Taking of Pelham 123 and the thinking behind the premise of Jaws: The Revenge. He speaks fondly of his work with Hollywood screen legends James Cagney (Terrible Joe Moran) and Elizabeth Taylor (There Must Be A Pony). He covers his association with Stanley Kubrick in the pre-production stages of One-Eyed Jacks, his rejection of Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter, and casting unknown Pierce Brosnan in the miniseries The Manions of America. He ends by talking about later Emmy-winning television movies he has directed including: Miss Evers’ Boys, A Lesson Before Dying, Something the Lord Made, and Warm Springs. Gary Rutkowski conducted the interview on March 9, 2006 in Malibu, California.
Veteran film and movies-for-television director Joseph Sargent (Something the Lord Made, Warm Springs, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) discusses his long directorial career and shares his working philosophy from both on and off the set. —Visual History with Joseph Sargent
OWEN ROIZMAN, ASC
“We mainly shot with a single camera and occasionally with two. There were no storyboards. Every morning we went through the pages of the script we were going to shoot that day. Joe was by the camera like most directors were in those days. He thinks very fast on his feet. Joe would say this is what we are going to do. He blocked shots with the actors and told me how he wanted to use the camera.” —Owen Roizman
Director Sean Baker celebrates Roizman’s unique way of capturing New York on film.
“When you’re working as a film composer you’re helping a director fulfil a vision that they initiated, and I didn’t want to write the same old stuff you’d heard on other action pictures. It took about a month for me to find a solution to the picture, but it was certainly worth the effort. The sound I wanted was a kind of organised chaos that was expressive of New York. It wasn’t that I specifically wanted to use that method of composition, and Joe Sergeant couldn’t care less if it had been ten-tone, twelve-tone or five-tone, but it the serial technique helped me get to control a score that seemed on the verge of falling apart. I was fortunate that in Pelham, where my music was fighting a subway train, Joe wanted to hear my music. It was nice to get an opportunity to make a lot of noise with that kind of an orchestra. The tone of a film generally determines the musical style and I was happy to score an action picture as, prior to that, my work had become associated with more delicate and subtler scores.” —David Shire
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Photographed by Josh Weiner © Palomar Pictures, Palladium Productions, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.