As part of The Flop House’s takeover of Movie Of The Week, Stuart Wellington, Dan McCoy, and Elliott Kalan keep the Taking Of Pelham One Two Three conversation going.
Keith: I’ve got an unanswerable question that might be a good way to kick off this discussion: What kind of movie is this? Elliott’s Keynote talks about the poster, which makes it look like another early-1970s disaster movie. It isn’t that. It’s funny, but too bloody to be a comedy. It isn’t exactly a heist movie, either, since our point of view keeps switching between those doing the heisting and those trying to stop it. And it has a long epilogue that’s more low-key police movie than the thriller that’s preceded it, yet it doesn’t plays as an anticlimax. Why does this movie work?
Stuart Wellington: I am a bit of a latecomer to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, having only recently watched it for the first time. It was one of the many gaps in my film-viewing history. I was eventually worn down by Elliott’s multiple mentions. It’s his most favorite movie of all times.
I watched the movie with my wife, who has been distrustful of my movie choices ever since Drag Me To Hell featured a cat death. When attempting to convince her to spend our evening together watching The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, I had difficulty categorizing the movie in my sales pitch. With my limited understanding of the plot, I focused on the fact that it features Walter Matthau in the lead role. I assumed that her concerns of being subjected to a grim 1970s hostage thriller would be assuaged by the presence of Oscar Madison. After watching it, I don’t think I would change my pitch. Matthau symbolizes the appeal of the movie. He brings a blue-collar charm that’s difficult to categorize. Just like him, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is at times funny, deadly serious, and not conventionally attractive. So maybe what makes the movie work is its lack of easy categorization, coupled with its warts-and-all portrayal of New York City?
Dan McCoy: I think one of the ways this movie works is that it plays like a slice of life. Obviously the particular slice chosen to be on display is more thrilling than usual. It’s not every day that there’s a train hijacking in the city. But one truth about New York is that if it isn’t a train hijacking, it’s some damn thing. And the city keeps churning on. When I was studying acting in college, it was impressed upon me that you should always make your entrance as if you’re coming from somewhere. It shouldn’t seem like your character only began to exist the moment he steps on stage. All of the characters in Pelham feel like they’re coming from somewhere: the train officials who just want to run their damn train system for one day without something going on; Matthau, whose relaxed day of napping as a transit cop has already been interrupted by a tour group before the heist further interrupts it; the police, who seem raring to go, since a hostage situation seems more fun than directing traffic; the deputy mayor, for whom this is just the latest in a long line of mayoral messes he’s had to clean up; the passengers on the train, who are really going somewhere, and mostly just seem perturbed that their commute has been messed up. That continuity of life makes up for any discontinuity of tone. And when has real life had a consistent tone, anyway?
Elliott Kalan: As I mentioned in my Keynote, I think that sense of realism is what makes the movie special—but I also think it’s the reason all these different tones and genres don’t clash with each other. They don’t sound like they’d feel natural next to each other, but those clashes of tone are natural to life in a city. In addition to that, the movie has a great sense of timing and the audience’s patience. There’s a slow build to the hijacking, but once the hijacking happens and we’re ready for some fast-paced intensity, the movie picks up speed. By the time we’re starting to get tired of being stuck on that damn train, we get off it to do some shoe-leather police work. When the movie’s in danger of taking itself too seriously, someone tells a joke. When the movie’s getting too goofy, people get hurt. The mechanics of the movie are really well-balanced in such a way that all the elements come together instead of clashing.
Keith: Though it does have its clashes. Elliott, you point out that it’s very much the product of a particular time and place, specifically a New York that looks a bit on the ropes. It’s broke. It’s covered in graffiti. And there’s a free-floating tension in the air that seems like the combined effect of economic strife, political discontent, a post-’60s hangover, and social changes. Joseph Sargent isn’t a flashy director, but those instincts serve him well here: He shows up with a camera and lets New York do the work. What’s your favorite detail of that era preserved in the film?
Elliott: I’m an outdated-technology junkie, so I love, love, love the board where they track trains using tiny light bulbs—and if you pay attention, you’ll see that the phone they use in that room is an old His Girl Friday-style handset that’s been crudely stuck onto one of those fold-out extending mount-things. Just a world where everything’s falling apart, and at the moment, no new resources are coming in to replace this jury-rigged system. The ads in the subway car are also a great reminder of the days when cigarettes were still advertised on every public space. But at the same time that all those details remind us of when this movie’s taking place, they avoid making cultural or pop references that might date it as a piece of entertainment. It’s somehow very much of its time in every detail without feeling dated or antiquated.
Dan: All New Yorkers immediately become students of mass transit when they move here, simply because getting from one place to another can be so fraught and stressful. You need to know which trains can get you where, and fast, and which trains can be relied upon to break down, or suddenly decide not to show up at all. It’s as big a topic of conversation with us as traffic is in Los Angeles. So a lot of the train stuff appealed to me. But if I’m honest, I was mostly taken with Walter Matthau’s majestic combination of a brown herringbone tweed jacket over a yellow/green/red plaid shirt, with a mustard-yellow tie. I’m not sure, even in the 1970s, whether people actually dressed that way, or it’s a ridiculous character choice. But as my wife pointed out, it would make a hell of a Halloween costume.
Stuart: Yeah, the best Halloween costumes are the ones you have to explain to people.
Not sure if this is a product of the time, but I love the matter-of-fact tone everyone takes when speaking with each other. There is not a hint of political correctness or coddling. No one is treated special, whether it’s the mayor of New York or the people on the train. Lives may have value, but all of the characters are having the same shitty day, and are trying to deal with it.
Keith: Stuart, that kind of speaks to the character of the city as portrayed in the film. Everyone’s short-tempered and looks like they haven’t gotten enough sleep, and any failures in public transportation are just going to make a bad day worse. There’s clearly crime, and plenty of it. But on the whole, it reminds me of a quote in a recent documentary on the band Pulp, when an interview subject talked about why he preferred Sheffield to London because, sure, you can get mugged in Sheffield, but, “It’s usually funny. You usually know the person that’s mugging you.” I’ve never lived in New York, but I’ve had friends describe it as the world’s biggest small town, because you fall into patterns and end up seeing the same people again and again. (That’s kind of true of Chicago, too, though less so if you drive rather than take public transportation.) Pelham has that kind of neighborly vibe to it, even if the neighbors are total grouches. The only real threats come from the hijackers, and they’re outliers.
Obviously, this is a movie and not reality, but I wonder if you could speak to how the character of the city has changed in the years since those it depicts. We even have an easy point of comparison: Does Tony Scott’s remake capture the feel of post-9/11 New York as well as this one captures the New York of the early 1970s?
Elliott: I’m very glad you brought this up, because it’s something I tried so hard to cram into my Keynote, but ultimately had to discard for reasons of space and my own personal sanity. First off, the “biggest small town” thing is very true—you constantly run into people you know—but it may also be an example of how the city is so big and people’s lives are so segregated in many ways that a lot of New Yorkers don’t travel outside their comfort zone. I run into people a lot because they live or work near where I live or work. Often, the only time we really get a lot of close contact with strangers is when we’re crammed against them on a subway car as we travel to our very different, very distant neighborhoods.
But getting back to the question of the remake and how/whether it captures the way the city has changed, I’d say yes and no. The remake is a failure on a number of levels, but the one thing it captures is the gloss and slickness of modern Manhattan, if not exactly the city as a whole. If Pelham The First is grungy because New York is broke, then Pelham The Second is shiny and pretty bland because New York is currently rich. It’s part of why the remake lacks a sense of the drama and stakes of the original: When you’re home to a trillion-dollar financial sector filling the city’s coffers, why not just pay the lousy ransom and get the trains moving? The city’s likely to lose a lot more money if the janitor who keeps the hedge-fund offices clean is late because one of the three subway trains he takes during his two-hour commute from the outer Bronx is delayed for a number of hours.
The thing the remake really fails to capture is the post-9/11 feel you mentioned. The city, and the subways in general, live with a sense of heightened fear and paranoia that didn’t exist in the same form in the 1970s. Back then, everyone was afraid they’d be mugged, murdered, raped—terrible, horrible crimes, but small-scale crimes. Now, everyone’s afraid of a radioactive bomb, or a gas attack, or something that would take out thousands of people. As a result, security is higher everywhere, in ways that make the 1970s Pelham look quaint and welcoming. There’s a moment when SWAT-type troops rush into a station to be ready as the hijacked train goes by, and I’m sure it was probably a startling moment for audiences of the time. But to today’s New Yorker, police armed with semi-automatic weapons, and bomb-sniffing dogs randomly stopping people to search their bags, isn’t just common, it’s expected. The remake doesn’t succeed at getting across that sense of “Oh shit, what if we get hit again” the way a lot of people still feel even now, 13 years later.
Sorry that was such a long response, but I’ve thought a lot about the Pelham remake, and I realized Manchurian Candidate was no fluke: Denzel Washington was on a mission to remake all my favorite movies so I’d forever have to add “the original version” to the title when I talk about them. Damn you, Denzel!
Stuart: It’s going to be difficult for you to handle the inevitable Videodrome remake. Just try to imagine Denzel sliding a Blu-ray into a slot in his belly.
Elliott: I’ll really know they’re targeting me when they come out with The Devil And Denzel Webster.
Dan: I find that it captures the changing reality of movies much more than the changing reality of reality. The ending of the original Pelham (spoilers, if it wasn’t obvious) is beautifully low-key. Robert Shaw’s “main” bad guy decides to electrocute himself on the third rail, rather than allow Matthau to take him in for kidnapping and murder, and spend life in prison in a state without the death penalty. Then the remaining 15 minutes or so of the film is given over to Matthau and Jerry Stiller tracking down the last living hijacker, which gives us the wonderful suspense and comedy of the final scene. (Side note: 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.)
Meanwhile, the remake tosses out everything that made the original’s final scenes unique, jettisoning the cat-and-mouse stuff for an utterly conventional showdown between Denzel Washington and John Travolta (no room for a side villain to hog the climax here!) involving a bridge and the hero and villain shouting about who’s gonna shoot who, and oh my God I just put myself to sleep.
Elliott: That’s a good point about almost wishing Balsam would get away with it. Once he’s out of the subway and just sitting in his tiny, gross apartment in his long underwear, the feeling kicks in that you get when Norman Bates is trying to hide the murder his “mom” committed in Psycho. You don’t want Matthau and Stiller to see the money hiding on the floor. There’s nothing close to that kind of momentary sympathy for the villain in the remake. Or for anyone in the movie, really. Like in the scene where one of the hostages is made to feel humiliated because he can’t pee in front of the other passengers. At that moment, I lost sympathy for every character in the film, and wanted King Kong to just pick up that train and throw it into the harbor so everyone could go home.
Stuart: I haven’t seen the remake yet. How’s the action? Any CGI? How much of the setup is devoted to filling in the hostages’ backstory?
Elliott: The action is “not,” in that it’s really lame and boring. It’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that tries to convey the idea “an out-of-control train is traveling amazingly fast” by showing the train in slow motion. And they actually spend way too much time filling in the backstories of the hero and villain. Denzel is a dispatcher with a checkered past, rather than a guy just trying to do his job, and John Travolta is a former stock trader who, I think, is just doing the hijacking in order to crash the stock market and make money through investing or something? Basically, they did the modern movie thing of overcomplicating everything. Just like modern life, with all its apps and TV channels and what have you. Just give me a radio and a newspaper, please!
Keith: It feels like this train is approaching its last stop. Thanks for talking this over with us, guys. Before we go, however: Favorite detail in the movie? I like that Shaw’s character brings a book of crossword puzzles to pass the time. He’s seen the worst combat can offer, he seems to think. This’ll be easy.
Elliott: I have two: I think my favorite joke in the movie is when you just hear a ton of booing offscreen and one of the cops goes, “The mayor’s here!” And then it cuts to a different scene. There’s something so beautiful to me about both the joke and the fact that the mayor’s final appearance in the movie is handled as an offscreen joke.
The other is when the trainee conductor is going over the train’s operating instructions, and he says, “Look both ways to make sure nobody’s being dragged” just as it cuts to a guy hauling ass to slide between two closing doors so he doesn’t miss the train and have to wait for the next one. It’s a move that every single New Yorker has performed dozens of times, even though it’s stupid, could kill or maim you, and the worst that happens is you wait up to 10 minutes longer. I know every time I see it, I cheer a little for that dude getting onto that train. Even though I know it means he’s going to get caught up in a hijacking.
Stuart: This goes back to my earlier comment about the gruff attitudes of the various characters in the film, but I absolutely love Frank the transit chief, played by Dick O’Neill. He is constantly spitting out invectives with this perfect, almost movie-gangster-level monotone. When Mr. Blue first contacts him to list his demands, Frank responds with great lines like, “I’m listening, you animal” and “Keep dreaming, maniac.” And after Zach takes over negotiations, Frank remains in the background, providing a constant level of chatter. This gives the film some good laughs while making the office scenes feel more crowded and frustrating. Frank’s almost like a stand-in for the people of New York, snapping wise and pressuring Garber to get the situation resolved.
Dan: I like the way, when Garber and Rico visit Mr. Green’s apartment at the end, Matthau tosses off a “Nice place,” when it is most decidedly not a nice place—instead it’s the sort of overstuffed railroad apartment familiar to any New Yorker, and its accuracy almost makes up for any number of Friends-style giant lofts in the rest of pop culture. Speaking of Matthau (off-topic, but I didn’t get to mention it elsewhere), let’s have a few words of praise for his performance. One thing I noticed re-watching the movie is that Garber isn’t actually a particularly amazing transit cop. It takes him a surprising amount of time to realize he can just lie to the hijackers about when the money is arriving, since they have no eyes up top. And he initially discounts the police when they correctly suggest that the hijackers might hop off and set the train in motion without them, citing the “dead man’s switch.” Only later does he come up with the not-so-brilliant insight, “Hey, maybe they found some sort of work-around.” Yet Matthau is so cool, so wily, so Matthau-esque, that he comes across as the sharpest cat in the room anyway. Folks who know him only from his comic roles should check him out in his other great hard-boiled action role from the 1970s, Charley Varrick, and 1980’s Hopscotch, which is more comic, but also features the sly action version of Matthau, as a guy who decides to resign from the CIA in the most disruptive way possible.
Our look at The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three began with Elliott Kalan’s Keynote and continues Thursday with Dan McCoy’s examination of another Joseph Sargent film, the infamous Jaws: The Revenge.