Tuesday, December 1, 2020

At the Core of the Big Apple: The Taking (and Retaking) of Pelham 123

Back when I used to travel to Manhattan for business and pleasure, I often jumped on the Lexington line, heading downtown. You can see all sorts of sights on New York subways, but happily I never encountered a quartet of desperate men, disguised with hats and fake mustaches, commandeering a train car and threatening to kill passengers, one by one, if their outrageous financial demands aren’t met. That’s central to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a superior thriller released in 1974.

 I became intrigued when I read a comment by actress Cynthia Nixon, who called this “my absolute favorite movie of all time. When it comes to movies about New York City, this one blows the competition out of the water.”  Given how many great NYC movies have been made over the years, Pelham had to overcome some mighty stiff competition to be at the top of Nixon’s list. Now that I’ve seen it, I understand where Nixon, a native New Yorker, is coming from. The film presents a vibrant cross-section of New York life: its characters reflect a range of ethnicities and social strata, but they all share a cranky obstinacy that makes them truly seem to be at the core of the Big Apple.

 Perhaps the crankiest and most obstinate is Walter Matthau, as the head of New York Transit’s police division. It’s his job to figure out what’s going on with the southbound train called Pelham One Two Three, but his life is made no easier by the visiting Japanese dignitaries whose knowledge of English only seems limited, nor by the co-worker at headquarters who questions his every move. Eventually the city’s inept mayor and his oily chief of staff become part of the situation too, as do scores of irked commuters. But of course they’re all essentially being held hostage by the greedy, lethal, and (yes) obstinate hijackers, led by Robert Shaw. Also part of the plot is Martin Balsam, who—after some serious mayhem—features along with Matthau in one of the greatest final scenes ever.

 When you’ve got a movie this good, why bother to remake it? Funny you should ask. In 2009, Tony Scott decided to work his action-film magic on the property, slightly retitling it The Taking of Pelham 123. In Scott’s hands the movie has become twice as hectic, twice as violent, and at least four times as bloody, making room for lots of car crashes and other adrenaline-pumping moments. And the original ensemble piece (directed by Joseph Sargent) has somehow evolved into a star vehicle for two of Hollywood’s biggest names. John Travolta plays the twitchy leader of the bad guys, a man not just greedy but totally screwed up, motivated by a kind of weird Catholic death wish. And instead of average-schmo Walter Matthau, the head of the good guy team is now Denzel Washington, who’s not just a subway dispatcher but also a man who’s been demoted into this job because of an ethical lapse of which he may or may not be guilty. Moreover, he’s a former motorman himself, so at a certain point he ends up being summoned to take over the controls of the hijacked train car. Which puts him face to face with Travolta in the kind of movie-star showdown we could have anticipated from the start, with Denzel looking for redemption and Travolta wanting . . . well, what the heck does he really want, anyway?

 A side note: the $1 million sought by the hijackers in 1974 has become $10 million in 2009. You can always count on inflation. 




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