Bright Lights Film Journal

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): The Ultimate NYC Film

“What is this New York-ness?”

New York City occasionally stars in films such as The French Connection (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), and Manhattan (1979), and the city acquits itself well under some fine direction. Yet, superior as those films are, another, less self-conscious movie has come to represent for me the ultimate expression of New York City, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).

What is this New York-ness? Few outside of the city really care — and that’s the point! New York is insular, moody, dangerous, surprising, lively, cynical, humane — with more than an occasional absence of this latter quality — and amused with itself. New York City, about which its resident cab drivers can say to a group who had just flown in from Europe: “Welcome to the Wormy Apple,” without intending to insult the hometown. True New Yorkers believe that no other city exists in the world, yet they have a knowing way about life despite never venturing far from their significant boroughs.

The Pelham 123 (who outside New York would have a clue what it means?) is a subway train, in particular, a singular car of this train taken hostage for a million dollars. This 1974 movie capitalized on the national skittishness over plane hijackings to Cuba. Hijacking a subway car seems in the NYC setting not only logical, or a logical extension of the city’s grotesque crime rate, but long overdue. Concentrating a movie almost entirely in the subway was not new. The Incident (1967), which introduced Martin Sheen and Tony Musante and starred Beau Bridges, portrayed a cross section of scared, dysfunctional middle-class couples and individuals. Pelham spares us analysis and social criticism, if not overacting, and delivers intense dramatic action.

Pelham also taps into the urban nightmare for both commuters and transit workers. Besides the hijackers’ deaths, the only other injuries are suffered by public employees: two dead, one wounded. Further NYC-izing us, several elements of the city government from the police to the mayor are viewed very sardonically. The head of the hijackers, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), is conspicuously contemptuous of NYC things, including his three partners: a Mafia reject (Hector Elizondo), a stutterer (Earl Hindman), and, as you might expect, a disgruntled ex-employee of NYC transit (Martin Balsam). Mr. Blue also instructs the transit police very precisely what he wants and how quickly they must get the ransom to him. “We can’t do it,” the New Yorkers respond. “You must,” he replies, or he will kill one passenger for every minute past the deadline. What seems incomprehensible — especially to those in a NYC frame of mind — is that within this one hour (a) the mayor must convene his staff, (b) they must decide if the city should pay (NYC is bankrupt), then after agreeing to the terms, (c) they must count the money in non-sequenced $20 bills, and (d) transport the ransom money across town with a police escort. Additionally, the time limit creates the primary dramatic tension through the bulk of the film.

Atop the time limit are many subplots that affix us to the action. The inner workings of the NYC transit system; the dealings of city government; clashes among the hijackers; the fate of the hostages (one of whom is an undercover cop); lastly, the interplay between Mr. Blue and a transit policeman, Lieutenant Garber (Walter Matthau). While Robert Shaw’s Britisher sneers at all things NYC, Matthau’s cragged face and forlorn voice implicitly champion NYC values. The actor’s Pelham role happened in the midst of a productive career phase. He played another cop (San Francisco) in The Laughing Policeman (1973) hunting a mass murderer and starred as a successful criminal in Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick (1973). These films capture his world weariness and cynicism in a form milder than one finds in his breakthrough role as a shyster lawyer in The Fortune Cookie (1966). His New York credentials , of course, were established in The Odd Couple (1968).

Things are not easy initially for Matthau in Pelham. He must escort Japanese transit officials around the transit headquarters. Wrongly thinking they do not speak English, he calls them “monkeys” and other epithets. His New York insularity gets a comeuppance when he learns too late that the Japanese officials speak English. In his negotiations with Mr. Blue, Matthau feels his way through, especially when he must harness the innate callousness of his New York colleagues who seem more worried about on-time trains and ignore the danger to the seventeen hostages. It is literally a triumph, from the non-NYC perspective, that the hostages are deemed worth saving.

However, humanity-by-the-backdoor aside, what ingrains Pelham as the ultimate NYC film is its choice of mayor Lee Wallace, who also was mayor of Gotham City in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). We initially see him sick in bed with the flu, pillow over his head, watching The Newlywed Game, then running for re-election, his popularity at an all-time low, his top aide (Tony Roberts) bullying him, and, most remarkably, a young lookalike for former NYC mayor Ed Koch. How much more NYC can you get than Ed Koch? So much will Pelham’s mayor be identified as a Koch caricature, it would surprise many people to learn that Abe Beame was NYC mayor in 1974.

Pelham’s unflattering portrait of its host city is not as nasty as The Out-of-Towners (1970) or Midnight Cowboy (1969). The NYC heroes, Garber and Patrone (Jerry Stiller), defeat the hijackers and save the hostages. Not that New York has been redeemed or even become a better city, but it has survived another day.