Start a conversation with someone about great crime films from the 1970s and they’ll probably mention films like The Godfather, Dirty Harry, The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, The Getaway, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and maybe even Get Carter. However, an often overlooked but still excellent addition to this list is the 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. It’s a film known by film buffs as the inspiration behind Quentin Tarantino’s naming of the criminals with colours in his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, and it deserves just as much attention as that film receives, if not more.
So what makes The Taking of Pelham One Two Three great? Firstly, it’s the pacing. It’s expertly crafted, filmed and edited so that it hits the ground running whilst simultaneously giving the audience all the exposition they need for the jett-black humour, moments of tension and brilliant ending to pay off spectacularly – and the ending is brilliant. We’re introduced to all of the main characters well, and feel as though we know them intimately within the first 20 minutes of the film’s running time – a hard thing to pull off, particularly in the crime genre. This feat is achieved in no small part from the physical technicalities of the film – it’s well shot, very well-written, and incredibly well-edited. All of this helps to make the experience of one of the most unique heists in film history seem that bit more real.
The 2009 remake may have been better than it should have been (though it still wasn’t great), but it’s not a touch on the original.
It’s also fantastically intense and audaciously thrilling – just the very concept of hijacking a subway train is a cinematically interesting but it succeeds on so many more levels. It’s got some moments of genuine hilarity in the go-betweens to and from the hijackers, Walter Matthau’s Lt. Zachary Garber and the police, transport and political authorities that become entangled with the incident. This makes the film at times feel more like a caper than a ‘pure’ crime film, but in reality it simply helps to reflect how human a situation such as this would actually be, and this surprisingly doesn’t come at the expense of drama. In fact one could argue that this strengthens the more tense moments of the film, because the audience is far more endeared to the characters than they otherwise would have been. Linking to this, it also has some more satirical moments with regard to the character of the New York mayor, for example, and this helps to break some of the tension as well as humanise the characters more. The characterisation on the whole is excellent as personalities and wits bounce around and across the subway platforms for the entire runtime and it’s as enjoyable as it is thrilling.
The superb acting helps bring this to fruition – the great script is one thing, but for it to be brought to light in such a way requires both great acting and great direction, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three has both to spare. Robert Shaw obviously steals the limelight as one of the criminals, but Hector Elizondo’s Mr. Grey is also a highlight – if you can call a slimy misogynistic racist psychopath a highlight. Indeed there is no dead weight amongst the entire cast, minor roles included – to the extent that even the non-speaking roles are well-handled and again, feel real and help to add to the authenticity and atmosphere of the film. It is bleak, but it is human.
The film also has a 1970s grimy style that simply can’t be replicated.
David Shire’s score is also very impressive, though it is used sparingly – in much the same way as films like Bullit and The French Connection it is used not during the action but around it, ramping up the tension before the quick and brutal nature of the action unfolds – and it is brutal. There’s many a wince-worthy moment. The film also has a 1970s grimy style that simply can’t be replicated. All of the characters, albeit in their own unique ways, ooze cool, but this style is not Tarantino/Ritchie-esque – it’s not obviously shoved towards you on a plate with signs pointing at it and saying how cool it all is, instead the characters are just “themselves”. Presented simply this ‘cool’ is almost greater than the Tarantino-esque equivalents found elsewhere. It’s rare to see it done so well, but the characters, even the hideous ones, are well-developed, interesting – even charming, and help contribute to the great overall feel of the film.
It has arguably one of the best endings of any crime film…
The 2009 remake may have been better than it should have been (though it still wasn’t great), but it’s not a touch on the original. It’s stylish, enthralling, gripping, clever, funny, satirical and truly unpredictable. It has arguably one of the best endings of any crime film, if not any film at all, bringing the opening and closing moments of the film to a brilliant full circle, making you admire the brilliance of the exposition and characterisation even more than when you were watching it. If you’ve yet to see it, don’t even bother putting it on your “films to watch” list – watch it now.
By Oliver Rowe