By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Subway passengers held hostage.
Four men wearing disguises and going by code names: Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) board the same subway car, this one being the Pelham 1-2-3, at different locations. Once all four are onboard they take out their guns and take over the subway car by holding both passengers and conductor hostage. For their release they demand $1 million in ransom to be paid in 1-hour and for every minute that it is late one passenger will be killed. They communicate these demands to Lt. Zack Garber (Walter Matthau) who is a part of the New York City Transit police. As Mr. Blue and Garber communicate with each other over the radio and the city races to meet the crooks demands Garber begins to try and surmise who these men are and how they’ll be able to get away with it since they’re trapped in an underground subway. Garber is convinced that it will not work and the men will eventually be caught unaware that Mr. Green, who used to work for the subway system until he was, in his mind, unfairly terminated, has come up with an ingenious contraption that can override the dead-man’s switch and allow the train to keep running even with no one at the controls.
The film is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by John Godey, who was a subway enthusiast and came-up with the plot after spending many years using the subway system. While the movie rights for the paperback were sold for $450,000, in anticipation that it’d make a great movie, the film almost didn’t get made due to the reluctance of the Metropolitan Transit Authority to allow the production to be filmed on-location. Much of the reason stemmed from their fear that it might give ‘kooks’ the idea to pull-off a real-life heist, but eventually they caved once screenwriter Peter Stone added in the fictional contraption that could override the dead-man’s switch.
As a caper/action flick it is quite exciting from literally the first-frame to the last, but it’s some of the other added elements that make it a standout. I really enjoyed how the city of New York becomes like a third character and the unique, brash attitude of the people. Every character, no matter how small the part, has a distinct personality and memorable. My favorites were Mari Gorman as the feisty hooker, Michael Gorrin, as the elderly passenger convinced that the subway car must eventually come to a stop even as it careens out-of-control and everyone else panics. I also enjoyed Louie Larebee as an alcoholic woman, who is so drunk that she passes out when the crime begins and sleeps through the whole thing as well as Carolyn Nelson, the real-life wife of the film’s director Joseph Sargent, playing a college coed who believes she can stop the train through sheer mind control and meditation.
On the ground there’s some great character bits too including Tom Pedi as an aging, misogynist who doesn’t like the idea of having to work alongside women, nor that he should stop cursing because of it, who walks right into the line-of-fire when he stubbornly refuses to listen to the kidnappers warnings. Kenneth McMillan, is very funny as an exasperated street cop trying to direct traffic, and Dick O’Neill lends moments of drama as an outspoken transit employee who doesn’t like the idea of giving into the kidnappers demands and isn’t shy about voicing his disapproval, which leads to a tense confrontation with Matthau.
Matthau’s anti-hero take where he seems initially like nothing more than a aloof, laid-back guy, who doesn’t seem to have the cunning, or initiative to defeat the bad guys. At one point even openly insults a group of Japanese reporters who he thinks can’t speak English only to learn to his regret that they can, is excellent and in patented Matthau style seems to be able to do it without much visible effort.
Shaw is solid, but I felt there needed to be an explanation for how he got bought into the scheme, which never comes and ultimately is the film’s only real weak point. His personality is so different from the other men in the group that I couldn’t understand why he’d want to pull-off a robbery with them, nor why, being such a careful planner that his character is shown to be, he’d only realize as the crime is happening that the Mr. Gray was too much of a hot-head and not right for the job, as I’d think he would’ve observed this much earlier during the planning stage and had Gray removed before the actual crime had ever been carried out. Having scenes of the backstory spliced in would’ve helped made it more complete.
This was remade as a TV-movie in 1998 and then as another feature film in 2009 that starred Denzel Washington in the Matthau role and John Travolta playing Shaw’s part. I never saw the TV version and it’s been many years since I viewed the theatrical remake, but I remember finding it a letdown mainly because it centered too much around Travolta, who would go on long rants that bogged down both the pace and plot making it not nearly as exciting as this one.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: October 2, 1974
Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes
Director: Joseph Sargent
Studio: United Artists
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube