efore Quentin Tarantino color-coded his bad guys, novelist John Godey got the picture with his hugely successful “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” At the time, airline hijackings, mostly to Cuba, had the tabloids in rapture. Godey shifted the framework to the dingy world of the New York subway system and a million-dollar hijack caper involving meticulous planning and diamond-thief precision.
Whether TV master-director John Sergent could adequately capture the novel’s clipped and harsh mood was dispelled quickly with an action film that made the subway system its star and rode two brilliant casting choices, Robert Shaw as lead bad guy Mr. Blue and Walter Matthau as the disbelieving detective who only gradually understands the magnitude of the problem he has on its hands.
The all-male plot is this. Four mustached men in trench-coats board a West Side subway car, looking a little silly. But when the car is disengaged, all silliness ends. Mr. Blue wants $1 million on the hour or he’ll kill a hostage. There are 18 in the car. Manhattan of the period was broke, depressed, infested and down. Sergent captures all the period’s grittiness in the car and among the cops. Shaw’s Blue is chilled on the rocks. A former British mercenary, he works crosswords as the above-ground Matthau tries to come to grips with what to do. No need to suspend disbelief because at first no one does believe, another ace in the narrative hole.
Marty Balsam (Green), Hector Elizondo (Grey) and Earl Hindman (Brown) are splendid as Shaw’s bickering but brutal accomplices. Early one, Blue politely tells the hostages what they’re up against: “Now, then, ladies and gentlemen, do you see this gun? It fires 750 rounds of 9-millimeter ammunition per minute. In other words, if all of you simultaneously were to rush me, not a single one of you would get any closer than you are right now. I do hope I’ve made myself understood.” These days, such an announcement would need only grunt and gun.
Among the finest, most accomplished and credible thrillers of the 1970s, or any decade. Filmed in the city.