The basic plot is a stock-standard hijack/hostage suspense thriller but it’s made a lot more interesting by having a New York City subway train rather an aircraft as the hijackers’ target.
Four men calling themselves Mr Blue, Mr Green, Mr Brown and Mr Grey hijack the subway train that leaves Pelham at 1.23pm, hence the film’s title. They demand one million dollars to be paid within one hour. If the money is not paid they will start killing the seventeen hostages one by one. Dealing with a hostage situation is difficult enough at the best of times but when it’s a subway car stopped in a tunnel it’s almost impossible. There is no way of approaching the car without being seen and no way for snipers to get clear shots to pick off the hijackers.
The city bows to the inevitable and agrees to pay the money. But Mr Blue has given them just one hour to make the decision and deliver the money which sets up a thrilling race against time.
The man who has to deal with this mess is Lieutenant Zachary Garber of the Transit Police. It’s not the sort of situation a transit cop expects to have to face. Garber is no super-cop and he makes a few mistakes but he’s unflappable and he’s dogged.
There’s actually not a huge amount of violence in this movie which makes the violent moments all the more effective.
This is a very very New York movie. This is new York in the 70s, for better or worse. But it feels very very real.
Peter Stone’s excellent screenplay throws in some good twists at the end but mostly the tension comes from the reactions of the characters to the stresses they’re under.
Director Joseph Sargent worked mainly in television and on TV movies. He made a few feature films including the brilliant science fiction thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a suspense film rather than an action film, and the suspense is maintained at the highest pitch throughout. Sargent is in complete control.
Special mention must be made of Owen Roizman’s gritty cinematography (he also did the cinematography for The French Connection so he certainly knew how to get a New York feel).
The casting is nothing short of inspired. Everything about this movie is so New York that it was a very nice touch to have the chief villain be an Englishman played by an English actor. Robert Shaw plays Mr Blue as a man who seems to have everything, including his emotions, under tight control but there’s obviously a lot of rage bubbling just under the surface and liable to break out at any moment.
Casting Walter Matthau as Garber was a masterstroke. He’s the last guy you’d expect to find playing a cop which is why his performance works. He seems like a real workaday cop rather than a movie cop.
Hector Elizondo is nicely chilling as Mr Grey, a guy who is just a bit too eager to kill people. Martin Balsam is solid as Mr Brown, a subway train driver fired by the Transit Authority who is basically a defeated little man who thinks he’s finally going to make it big.
There’s a lot of humour mixed in with the suspense. Much of it would be considered very political incorrect today but actually it’s quite good-natured, and it’s funny. It’s kept within limits, the emphasis being on the suspense thriller elements.
The Blu-Ray release is bare-bones but looks great.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a meticulously crafted and very effective thriller with a clever low-key battle of wits, and nerves, between Lieutenant Garber and Mr Blue being a major bonus. Highly recommended.