Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The (1974)

Director Jospeh Sargent builds up the tension gradually and expertly in “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” a clever, gritty, funny and exciting thriller, reflecting life in New York City in the 1970s.


Based on John Godey’s novel, the movie is driven on a simple but effective and logical plot. A group of armed criminals take a New York subway train hostage and demand that the city pay $1 million in ransom within one hour, or else they will begin killing the passengers for every minute they are late.


The opening scene depicts a New York City subway car with four mustached men carrying boxes.  They are: Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman).  They quickly take a subway car with 18 people on board.

Veteran detective Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) undertakes the negotiations.   When we first meet him, he is giving a delegation from the Tokyo subway system a guided tour of the control center, imparting knowledge the audience will need later.


There are some obstacles along the way, as the money makes its way to Downtown Manhattan, the hostage takers try to orchestrate their escape and Garber and his associates try to catch them before it's too late.

The central relationship between Shaw’s cold-eyed criminal and Matthau’s wisecracking cop, is conducted via radio, though they meet very briefly toward the end.


The passengers represent a multi-racial group, a cross-section of New York demographics, among them a black pimp, a wise old man, a mother with two kids, all narrowly defined.


The gang is also faceless, consisting of types. The calculating Mr. Blue, who used to be a mercenary, the discredited former subway driver, Mr. Green, who’s over his head. Mr. Brown is a bit bland, like his name implies, but Mr. Grey, unlike what his color signifies, is a hot-tempered thug who's ready to shoot before thinking.

The film is not particularly violent.  There are a couple of shootings, some unmotivated, in cold blood, but there is no excessive gore or physical torture on screen.  Humor resides in the scenes depicting the Mayor, a nebbish if there was one.  Mostly in bed (he has a flu), complaining of this pain and that (at one point gets a shot in his butt), he is indecisive. When an aide suggests, “A million seems like a lot of money, but just think of what we’ll get in return.” he asks, “What’s that?”  “Eighteen sure votes,” she replies.

A terrific exercise in thriller genre making, which relies on plot rather than special effects, “Taking of Pelham” is Sargent’s best feature. Sargent is mostly known for his TV work, series like “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” and “Star Trek,” telepictures like “The Karen Carpenter Story” and “A Lesson Before Dying.”  For the big screen, he made a few good movies, and many more turkeys, such as “Goldengirl” and “Jaws 4.”

Matthau, a great character actor who looks creditably ordinary, plays the sober-headed and sardonic Garber, who handles the hostage situation efficiently.   As Blue, a former British Army colonel and mercenary, Shaw, just before making a splashy appearance in Spielberg's “Jaws,” again proves his expertise in playing tough men and villains.  Shaw excels as a guy so cool that he can concentrate on his crossword puzzle while negotiating with the authorities in the midst of the crisis.  Martin Balsam is also good, particularly in the last scene, which ends the movie abruptly but with the right punch.

Very much a product of its times, “Taking of Pelham” belongs to a cycle of paranoia thrillers that began with “The French Connection,” in 1971. Just to put it in broader perspective, the movie was released the same year as Coppola's “The Conversation” and a year before Sidney Lumet's masterpiece, “Dog Day Afternoon.”


Quentin Tarantino has claimed that this film, along with Kubrick's “The Killing” and others, inspired his 1991 feature debut “Reservoir Dogs,” specifically, the color-coded criminal characters and use of a heist plotl that goes awry, very awry.