Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

I don't know if there exists a God of Cinema, but I now believe in cinematic karma. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) was the type of movie I needed to see after subjecting myself to The Big Hit (1998). Here is a cerebral, patient, tense, and occasionally funny thriller about a hostage situation on a subway. The emphasis here is not on action, wisecracks, and explosions but on characterization, suspense, and buildup. The body count is low, especially compared to most modern action movies, but the stakes are high and the excitement palpable.

Four armed men, each with a color-coded name and led by Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), have hijacked New York City Subway Pelham 123, and they are giving the city one hour to pay $1 million. For every minute the payment is missed, the hijackers will execute one of the seventeen hostages they've also taken. Heading up the response and attempting to negotiate with the criminals is Transit Authority Police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), who's also trying to figure out how the criminals intend to escape the subway once they get their money.

Alfred Hitchcock famously described the difference between suspense and surprise: a bomb under a table unexpectedly goes off, that's surprise; a bomb under a table doesn't go off, keeping the audience waiting for when it will, that's suspense. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three milks the latter technique for all it can as we get closer and closer to the deadline. There's little "action" in the movie in terms of shootouts and chases, but it nevertheless remains gripping as we watch how events unfold.

Take the opening the scenes, for example, the hijacking of the train. We witness the hijackers, all wearing hats, glasses, and fake mustaches and carrying packages, one at a time board a separate car of the train. There's no verbal exposition about what they're doing; we just watch the plan in action. Later, when the city agrees to pay the ransom, the movie cuts back and forth between the criminals, eyeing their watches and looking menacingly at the hostages, and the efforts to get the money there in time: the federal reserve employees counting out the money, the police racing through traffic with the satchel in their squad car, the accident.

The film also includes a number of elements that keeps you wondering how they're going to payoff: the revelation that one of the hostages is an undercover cop, the tension between Blue and leering cohort Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), the chip on Mr. Green's (Martin Balsam) shoulder about his being fired by the transit and his continual sneezing, and more. Despite all this activity, the plotting of the movie remains tight and steady, and none of these details feel just added on for the sake of it; how they all pay off and contribute the plot's resolution is one of the movie's great joys.

Even with all the tension and suspense, the movie also possesses a sense of humor. Garber is a cynic, but he's a fairly amicable one at that, always throwing in pithy comments, at one point telling Blue he must be counting one on the entire city closing its eyes and counting to one hundred to get away. Plus, his main subordinate is played by Jerry Stiller as a sarcastic but effective transit cop. Even the criminals have some dry, dark laughs. Blue, calmly doing a crossword while waiting, begins answering a line of questions with a reply of "forty-nine minutes" to remind Garber how much time is left; Garber complains that negotiations won't get anywhere if he keeps repeating "forty-nine minutes," to which Blue replies "fort-eight minutes." The subplot involving the ill mayor and his political wrangling has some laughs, but at times, it's a bit too distracting from the main plot.

Performances are great by everyone. Many crime thrillers have a hotheaded, take-no-crap-from-anyone officer as its lead, but Matthau plays the role probably in a way we'd probably prefer such police officers in that situation to be: calm, level-headed, cerebral, more concerned about the safety of the hostages, and doesn't let thugs get under his skin. The only time he gets angry is at a subway supervisor who keeps complaining about negotiating with terrorists while he's got a system to run. And he's funny in a believable way that doesn't distract from the story. Equally effective is Shaw as the criminal leader: cool, clipped, focused, and uncompromising. At its most basic, the movie is the engagement of these two characters, a mental chess match between two great minds, and the joy of the film is seeing who can out-think who. Balsam is also quite good as the nervous member of the criminal group.

Based on a novel by John Godey, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was directed by Joseph Sargent in an effective, tense manner. The movie understands that excitement in a thriller is not based on how many shootouts occur, how many cars blow up, or how many stunts happen. Here, the excitement comes from putting these fascinating, believable characters in a pressure cooker and watching how they behave as we move closer and closer to the breaking point.

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