The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

criterion logoFour ruthless men hijack a subway train en route from New York’s Pelham Station, threatening to kill one hostage per minute unless a million dollar ransom is paid in an hour.  When the mayor reluctantly decides the cash-strapped City will meet the demand, it’s up to Transit Police Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) to somehow stall one of cinema’s craftiest, cruelest villains (Robert Shaw) from carrying out his threats while also trying to unlock how the hijackers plan to escape from a subway tunnel while surrounded by police from all sides.  With an exceptional cast including Martin Balsam, Héctor Elizondo, Dick O’Neill, and Jerry Stiller, a highly admired score composed and conducted by David Shire, and innovative cinematography by Owen Roizman, Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a fascinating document of 1970s New York and an underrated marvel in urban tension.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Owen Roizman and approved by director Joseph Sargent, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • New audio commentary featuring Sargent and Roizman
  • David Shire: One To Twelve, a new interview with composer David Shire on the film’s score, including unused music and an alternate version of the film’s main theme
  • Location tour with New York City subway historian Joe Cunningham
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring essays by TIME arts editor Jessica Winter and comedian Greg Proops

(Sorry, no version online to embed.  Check out clips of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three at TCM’s video page for the film!)

There seems to be two classes of people in the world – those who love Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and those who haven’t seen it.  If that sounds like an overstatement, check around the interwebs.  The films boasts a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and seems to be constantly hailed as an unacknowledged masterpiece overshadowed by other cops and robbers thrillers set in New York City, like Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975) and The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971).  You’ll get no argument on the merit of Pelham One Two Three here.  Sargent’s film is brilliant and exciting, thanks to a preposterous concept, a stunningly talented cast, a celebrated score,  and legitimate tension.  Pelham may not have the cold, documentary authenticity of The French Connection or the transgressive, anti-establishment politics of Dog Day Afternoon, but it’s thick with that particularly New York frame of mind, from Gracie Mansion all the way down to the City’s subway cars and represented within the context of NYC’s precipitous economic and social collapse, making the film a fascinating (as well as highly entertaining) document of a time and place.

Pelham posterNew York City had it tough in the late 1960s and 1970s.  Economic and industrial conditions significantly deteriorated.  Crime and unemployment rates rose.  Times Square had been taken over by the pimps, the prostitutes, and the sex shops, and the police seemed ineffectual, if not outright corrupt, in the face of NYC’s collapse.  By the mid-’70s, Mayor Abe Beame was spending most of his time futilely trying to resist municipal bankruptcy while being refused federal assistance, and there was little end in sight to the rot afflicting the Big Apple.  This is the world of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.  Each of its characters are infused with the tired cynicism and bitter fatalism of citizens with little to claim for themselves other than the cunning and perseverance that allows them to remain New Yorkers.  When 4 men take a subway car hostage with no apparent means of escape, it seems like a foolish act in keeping with the City’s desperate conditions and Pelham‘s characters are incredulous at the very idea, offended at the notion that 4 individuals are not abiding the same suffering as them and hostile to the idea that they obviously have not seen it all (“Why didn’t you go grab a goddamn airplane like everybody else?!”).  Every character in Pelham is full of character and its principal cast leads the way, with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw at the height of their popularity and stellar supporting players including Héctor Elizondo, Martin Balsam, and Earl Hindman as the other robbers and Dick O’Neill, Lee Wallace, Tony Roberts, and Jerry Stiller (“I just figured out how they’re going to get away. … They’re going to fly the train to Cuba.”) on the side of the City.  Peter Stone’s screenplay deftly blends its tension with sardonic humour, rounding out his characters and adding texture to this thoroughly New York story.

Drilling deeper into The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, it is surprising how the film’s contributors elaborate on its New York-ness by its formal presentation.  On the surface, Pelham is highly naturalist in tone and appearance, but also contains more abstract relationships to its subject matter.  Cinematographer Owen Roizman convinced Sargent and producer Edgar Sherick to shoot the largely interior set Pelham in 2.4:1 after observing that the dimensions of a subway car fit the frame almost exactly, thereby breaking from the conventional wisdom of the time that reserved the wider format to films showcasing grand exterior vistas.  Roizman’s use of anamorphic lenses creates more dynamic compositions, while his choice of 2.4:1 over 1.85:1 not only emulates the shape of the subway car, but also corresponds to the many other lateral spaces that populate the film – subway tunnels and platforms, the subway control room, police sedan interiors, sidewalks and roadways at street level.  For his part, David Shire’s celebrated jazz score is a character on its own.  In the main theme, his 2-note bass line (Ba-Womp-Womp-Womp) is tense and stalking, yet somewhat carnivalesque, while his 12-tone rows run along top with brassy self-importance.  Shire wanted his composition to be “New York jazz-oriented, hard-edged” while burying in it a “wise-cracking subtext”; a fitting musical nod to the loud and defiant manner of many of the film’s characters and to the City’s very identity.

Canvassing Criterion’s American cinema of the 1970s, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three could very well become the most mainstream, Hollywood film of that period in the current incarnation of the Collection.  Criterion’s focus has largely been on New American Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, however a scan of the old laserdisc Collection reveals an openness to more mainstream and popularly successful titles like Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975) Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977).  Pelham One Two Three has consistently been available on hard media, albeit in rather bare bones versions.  An upgrade to a Criterion quality edition, replete with worthy special features, would elevate the film to its deserving place as a masterful thriller and a texturally and spiritually authentic document of New York City in the 1970s, as well as let the Collection acknowledge the commercial mainstream in ’70s American cinema.

DN_HARRY BROWN_A2With regard to cover art, I’m drawn to the theatrical poster for Pelham, particularly the stencil-style title and the image of a silhouetted gunman standing at a subway car’s rear door.  Looking for a modern take on the original advertising, Daniel Norris, a freelance graphic designer in London, has an aesthetic impeccably suited to this film.  His heavy blacks and sometime preference for stenciled lettering naturally compares to Pelham‘s theatrical poster, and Norris’ roughed-out style would add some grit in keeping with the period.  Norris is also adept at some visual trickery, blending images and iconography to give his work layers of meaning and representation.  Surely he could work his magic on The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

DN_ATTACKTHEBLOCK_A2Credits:  With Sargent and Roizman still with us and apparently having had a positive collaboration on Pelham, committing their recollections to a commentary seems a necessary task to preserve and promote a film deserving of a place in the canon of classic New York cinema.  David Shire is also still with us and has frequently spoke on his efforts for Pelham‘s score.  An interview feature with him would be a wonderful opportunity to discuss his funk/jazz/big band intentions for the score, explain Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone serialism and his interpretation of it in Pelham One Two Three, and reflect on his own career.  Joe Cunningham, a NYC subway historian and a tour guide for the New York City Transit Museum, would be a wonderful resource to discuss the subway setting of the film.  Cunningham’s tour includes various trivia, including the cinematic, and a video tour with him explaining the locations and the operation of the subway system would be a treat.  Jessica Winter was selected to provide an essay based on her piece for The Village Voice, “Unearthing a Lost NYC in Sargent’s Great Train Robbery”.  An essay by Greg Proops would ensure that the humour and great entertainment value of Pelham One Two Three would not be lost.  Proops is an avowed fan of the film, as per his Greg Proops Film Club podcast.

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One thought on “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)

  1. astroesque June 6, 2013 / 2:25 pm

    Very nice giving props to David Shire’s awesome score!

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