Essential: THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974)

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It takes a while for some bad guys to take Pelham One Two Three. This is because Peter Stone’s screenplay concerns itself with establishing the individual identities of the crooks; showing us the various passengers on a subway they commandeer; presenting the lieutenant who inevitably gets drawn into the intrigue; and the lieutenant’s coworkers; as well as a politician who has a stake in the outcome. It’s not quite a cast of thousands but almost, and they each represent a unique point of view.

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Walter Matthau in a non-comedic role plays Lt. Zachary Garber, a savvy gent who does things by-the-book in order to thwart the criminal gang. The crooks go by color-coded names, and they are led by Robert Shaw– a mercenary who is about as ruthless as they come.

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Shaw’s cohorts include Martin Balsam as a former motorman who knows how to steer things after they get rid of the original conductor; as well as a gangster type character portrayed by Hector Elizondo. Also in this lawless group is Earl Hindman as a powerful brute. In short, these are four men you don’t want to mess with– which unfortunately some passengers learn the hard way.

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Stone’s screenplay is based on Morton Freedgood’s bestselling novel and it uses the basic scenario to give us some detailed character sketches. Stone also presents aspects of New York City that make the story’s metropolitan setting a character in its own right. Because the drama builds so gradually, we get a sense of people with interconnecting lives and competing agendas. A large portion of the action, of course, takes place underground. So we are plunged into a somewhat claustrophobic environment that becomes increasingly tense when things begin to unravel.

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The 2009 remake turned the story into a battle of wills between the lieutenant and the mastermind of the hijacking. But the 1974 version is considerably better, because it depicts a broader cross-section of people involved in the siege all trying to get out alive. Many of them do not know how to survive. The hijacking is supposed to bring a considerable sum of money to the gang for turning the hostages back over, and it is supposed to lead to the perfect getaway which they’ve painstakingly mapped out. But the lieutenant and his men put the kibosh on all that. In the end, three of the gang members have been killed and only one remains standing– the motorman/conductor played by Martin Balsam. There’s a clever twist in the last scene that prevents Balsam from getting away with the money. It’s nothing to sneeze at.

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THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is directed by Joseph Sargent and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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