learn from the classics

The Taking of Pelham One Two ThreeLast night I watched The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), a classic thriller about the hijacking of a subway train in New York city.

This film is obviously a product of the 1970s – it is seething with social commentary on the issues of the day – racism, sexism – but best of all it features a grittiness and reality that is the hallmark of a lot of films from that decade. It’s wonderful to observe the details from New York in the 1970s. The subway is an eternal feature of the city, and therefore despite the changes in costume and technology there is an ageless quality to the movie. Which is why, I assume, that some executive thought it would be a good idea to remake the film (it’s scheduled for release in 2009, and a TV version has already aired). Of course I’m sceptical of any attempt to remake it. The film is a product of its era, and unless the new production finds a different zeitgeist to tap into then it will just be a rehashed heist movie.

Pelham‘s four hijackers are all named after colours (I suspect this film is one of the many sources Tarantino referenced in Reservoir Dogs), and their leader is Mr. Blue, played by the fantastic Robert Shaw. Shaw is one of those excellent villains – completely cold, and yet never over the top. His counterpart is Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), which is a wonderful piece of casting because Matthau is all humanity, but prone to the normal failings.

Several times in the film casual racism is underlined – where Matthau pokes fun at his Japanese observers and realises afterwards they all understood his English perfectly well, and he assumes the Police Captain is white during their phone conversations, and later discovers he is black. More obvious racism and sexism are underscored too. This is an era of change, where traditional roles and social attitudes are in flux. What’s very interesting is the dialogue. There’s a lack of awareness about political correctness in the film that rings more true than what you hear in films today. It reflects the way people speak when they do not think they are being observed.

And through it all is a really brilliant depiction of New York character and attitude. From the lip and belligerence of the train manager, Frank Correll (Dick O’Neill), to the pushy no-nonsense Deputy Mayor and his ineffectual Mayor, the characters all pop as authentic. The casting indicates a preference towards credibility – there isn’t the plethora of pretty boys and girls we see in most Hollywood movies now. This is another trait of films in the 1970s – actors actually look and talk like normal people.

The passenger hostages on the train are a microcosm of the city: all races and classes are represented. The four male hijackers seem to depict failures or people who no longer have a roles in the world: the maniac too crazy for the Mafia, the mercenary who can no longer find jobs, and the man who was kicked out of his post for carrying drugs for gangs. These men have lost their power, and so they literally take the city hostage to demonstrate their continued potency. I could construct an interesting thesis about the fact these men go underground, into the dark tunnel, to capture a train, and therefore obtain power (money), but I’ll leave it up to your imaginations to run with the image. Still, underneath the quick and often funny dialogue, the heist action, and the myriad of characters, pulses a social anxiety that lends the movie a distinct tone and energy.

Anyone who is interested in writing a thriller or heist flick would do well to watch this film, because its execution is quite flawless. There are a number of clever ways exposition is offered to the observer about the city and the subway system: the conductor who is being trained and the Japanese observers on a tour. Yet, it’s never laboured. Information is dropped in, but always during action or with a humourous context. The last scene in particular is a lovely payoff to a series of setups in the film, and proves that a simple sneeze and a meaningful look from a good actor is enough to bring the film to a satisfying conclusion.