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With grim humor, “The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three” captures the deep-rooted malaise of 1970s New York

Joseph Sargent’s original and influential crime thriller has two 35mm shows at UW Cinematheque this Friday evening, July 9.

Poster design by Mort Künstler.

The 1970s were a famously terrible decade for New York City. On the verge of bankruptcy and facing sweeping cuts in city services with skyrocketing crime rates, NYC truly seemed to be on the verge of collapse. There have been a lot of great films set in the deep-rooted malaise of that time and place, but none of them capture it with the grim humor of Joseph Sargent’s The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974), screening on 35mm at UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall) this Friday, July 9, at 5 and 7 p.m.

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Pelham begins as a gang of heavily armed men, identified only by the color of their hats, takes a subway car full of passengers hostage. After the hostage-takers demand a million-dollar ransom from the city, it’s up to cranky transit cop Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) to stall for time while the ineffective mayor and city bureaucracy scramble to find the money. Garber and the group’s leader Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) engage in a radio cat-and-mouse game as Garber tries to figure out how the hijackers plan to escape with the ransom money. Ultimately, as in all great film heists, the hijackers’ getaway is destroyed by their own greed as Garber closes in on the gang.

Director Sargent has said that he thought he was making “just another heist movie” when he was filming Pelham, but his solid direction and a perfect cast and crew resulted in a film that’s endured as a cult favorite. Best known for light thrillers like Charade (1963), screenwriter Peter Stone expertly condensed John Godey’s original novel, simplifying the sprawling ensemble-character plot while building upon the book’s cynical sense of humor. In Godey’s novel, every character has their own backstory and internal monologue; in Stone’s screenplay, they all get at least one great line of dialogue. As the lead, Matthau is a perfect foil to Shaw’s cold, methodical ex-mercenary.

Theirs is an odd pairing, as the two have extremely different acting styles, but the dynamic helps balance the film’s blend of violence and humor. Matthau’s Garber is basically the same schlub he plays in every movie, but he’s so charming that it’s hard to complain. And the Shakespearean-trained Shaw sinks into his role with an icy intensity. Cinematographer Owen Poizman and editor Gerald Greenberg had both worked on The French Connection (another NYC film, released in 1971), and they bring their talents for precisely-executed action sequences and gritty realism to Sargent’s film here. Propelled by a driving twelve-tone score by David Shire, Pelham’s tension never seems to let up.

Although it wasn’t especially successful at the box office, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’s reputation has only grown through the decades. Blending elements of the heist film, police procedural, and the then-popular disaster genre, it can be seen as a template for the modern action thriller. It’s easy to see Shaw’s Mr. Blue as an influence on the villainous masterminds of 1980s and 1990s action movies like Die Hard (1988) and Speed (1994). Functioning both as a nonstop thrill ride and a darkly comic look at the decrepitude of 1970s New York, Pelham remains one of the best and most entertaining action films of the era.

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