Movie Review – The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

BQB’s classic movie marathon, as inspired by the coronavirus, continues, 3.5 readers.

Before the 2009 remake, there was the original. Both are good and now, after seeing the original, I can see how the remake stayed somewhat true to the source material while updating for the modern age.  Yeeh, hard to believe the remake was 11 years ago.


I have a hunch that Quentin Tarantino must have been a fan of this movie, for, just as in Reservoir Dogs, it too features a band of gun wielding crooks who have to deal with their own wild card.

Here, the crooks are led by Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) an ex-British military man who became a soldier of fortune in Africa before turning to a life of crime. His comrades are Misters Green, Grey, and Brown.  Grey, played by a young Hector Elizondo, is the wild card who doesn’t follow orders well.

Together, the bad hombres take control of the subway train, Pelham 123. They strand it in a tunnel and radio in to the NYC dispatch center, giving a deadline of 1 hour for the city to cough up a million dollars. Failure to comply will lead to the madmen killing one hostage for every minute that payment is overdue.

Before he became a grumpy old man in the 1990s, Walter Matthau was a grumpy middle aged man who played Lt. Garber, the transit police man who leads the investigation and communicates with Mr. Blue.

There’s a lot of over the top “New Yorkishness” here. A lot of subway workers yelling and shouting at each other as they’re trying to figure out what’s going on, and the actors really lean into those New York accents.

If you’re PC, definitely keep some smelling salts handy as there are many things that don’t hold up today. One worker openly complains about not being able to swear in the presence of a newly hired female coworker keeps him from doing his job effectively. A black police officer hiding near the track worries he might get shot by accident by his fellow officers because, quote, “I’m hard to see in the dark.”

Meanwhile, Matthau, possibly the film’s worst offender, while escorting a group of Japanese subway workers on a tour, openly calls them dummies and monkies, making fun of their limited English speaking abilities. He is surprised when he learns a police inspector he has been communicating with over the radio for the entire film is black (the only assumption being that Garber didn’t think a black man would be so competent), jokes that his Italian coworker works for the Mafia on the weekends, and at several points in the movie, notes that an undercover officer who has blended in among the passengers would be “useless” if it turns out the officer is a “dame.”

To the film’s credit, I think a lot of these things that wouldn’t fly then, didn’t necessarily fly back then either, except that back then, movies were at least to point out that prejudices were wrong by showing characters engage in them only to get their comeuppance later.  For example, Matthau is embarrassed upon realizing that the Japanese subway workers could understand him all along and were just being gracious in not responding to his insults. Meanwhile, he looks like a dick when he underestimates the police inspector, and the look on his face makes us think that perhaps even he realizes he was being a dick.

Back on the train, wild card Mr. Grey calls a passenger an “N-word” and this is a turning point in the film where we realize Grey is nuts and is going to be a problem for his fellow crooks. Mr. Blue, a cold hearted, calculating criminal who is so cold that he is prepared to shoot passengers in the head as just a cost of doing business won’t stand for racial intolerance and realize Mr. Grey was a bad hire at this moment.

I get both points about the racial content in movies debate. I get the one side where it might be best to remove it all. I get the other side where we are asked to take things in context. At any rate, there are a lot of things in this movie that are jarring to modern ears and eyes.

Seinfeld fans will be happy to see a young Jerry Stiller as Matthau’s partner and Stiller’s wife, Doris Roberts, plays the wife of “The Mayor.” We never get the Mayor’s name (played by Lee Wallace) but he is a parody of politicians, worried more about picking the option that will get him the most votes and not about doing the right thing.

Inflation really is a bitch. The crooks rob a train for 1 million dollars, each taking $250,000 a piece. Even today, $250,000 is nothing to sneeze at, but is it worth robbing a train, risking that you might be shot by police or end up in jail?  Probably not, though I guess in the 1970s it was a vast fortune.  The whole thing made me think of the “one million dollars” joke from Austin Powers.

Central to the plot is the mystery of how the bad guys expect to get away when they are underground, surrounded by police and the only way out is to get off at a station, where they will be bound to be caught.

STATUS: Shelfworthy.


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