[Originally Published on Fogs Movie Reviews Fall of 2013] [Re-Published now in conjunction with the 2018 TCM Film Festival]
The nineteen seventies were the last golden age of movie making. There have been plenty of great movies since then, and there have even been periods of time when a film making movement has taken center stage. Yet pound for pound the period of time when the studios were still controlled by film makers and not corporate conglomerates, remains the longest sustained period of film making excellence since the 30s. The mavericks that ran the studios lead by the seat of their pants, and their taste in films. When they succeeded, like Robert Evans did at Paramount, the atmosphere was invigorating. After "Heaven's Gate" and the fall of United Artists, the movie business changed. Not always in negative ways but it was very different. "The Taking of Pelham 123" is one of those films that represent a gritty view of the world, with cynicism that reflected the time and place and was not simply a joke or a stylistic flourish. It's not the kind of film that would have appealed to a modern studio as much. Maybe the indie world would be able to put something like this on the screen these days but it would not have had the cache of this version. The remake exists because there is already a story, and a success that the marketers can shoehorn into their philosophy. The remake is a casting gimmick, it worked but only because the groundwork had been laid out by the original.
This is a crime film where the crime involves holding hostages for ransom. The conceit is that the location of the kidnapping is a moving target underground. The set up of the movie familiarizes us with a variety of characters, most of whom are working stiffs in the NY Transit System. Walter Matthau, who made his daily bread playing cynical types, is the worn down head of the transit police in charge of one section of the subway system. Lt. Garber, mouths off at his co-workers, dutifully provides a tour to visiting transit dignitaries and generally growls his way through another work day. The re-make casts Denzel as as a dispatcher rather than a cop. OK that might work, except it the remake then gives him a back story and a plot line that have nothing to do with the main event. The goal is to layer the character and make the plot deeper. In my view it comes off as uncertainty as to how to make the plot as tense as possible. They resort to tricks to build empathy for Garber. Matthau's cop version is just doing his job. He is good at it and he struggles with the crisis he is faced with but our rooting interest is in the events not the man. Denzel is given multiple crisis to deal with and his willingness to do the job is undermined by the suspicion around him because of a separate story that is not really the focus of the film.
As a great illustration of the urban grittiness found in the original, take a listen to this terrific main theme that muscles the story onto the screen and tells you this is a film about tough men and dangerous situations, and manages to do so without resorting to theatrics.
I don't remember the score from the remake, but I do remember the over the top "bad guy" played by John Travolta. Dark glasses, close cropped hair, Fu Manchu mustache and tattoos galore are all trademarks of movie bad guys in the last twenty years. All the gang in the original had fake mustaches but they wore them as a cover not as an attempt to intimidate. Even though there is not any back story or character costuming, the four hijackers in the 1974 film all had distinct personalities and they were easy to remember by their colorful sobriquets. I am pretty sure this is where Tarantino cribbed the idea for naming his characters in "Reservoir Dogs".
The ultimate measure of any story like this is the villain, and while Travolta was scary and played the part as was written, his character is not as interesting or unnerving as Robert Shaw's Mr. Blue. While we ultimately hear a little bit more about his background, the truth is none of it matters because we know from the beginning that he is a ruthless professional. The look in his eye and the demeanor he conveys is all we need to know he is an alpha. Shaw never screams or shouts. Mr. Blue's cool voice and nearly expressionless face tells every passenger on that train that he is not a man to be f***ed with. The next year after this, Shaw did "Jaws" which was a performance that draws attention to the characters idiosyncrasies. Except for his intolerance of the psycho Mr. Grey, we see little of his motivation or internal processes. Shaw underplays every scene and the dialogue with Matthau on the radio is deadly earnest. He never compromises. The one time his timetable is adjusted has nothing to do with negotiating but everything to do with the situation, he still is in charge.
The way the hijackers maintain their control of the situation is by following Mr. Blue's lead. He guns down a hostage in cold blood and he doesn't accept the improvisation of his reckless ex mafia colleague. When he speaks to the passengers there is no mock sympathy or reassurance. He simply speaks directly and he acts as he has promised to.
The remake is filled with visual twists and plot developments to astound us. This movie is not filled with fireworks but it manages to hold our attention and be entertaining. The plot scenario might sound farfetched but set in the days of D.B. Cooper and hijacking of planes to Cuba it feels real. The city, the subway the passengers, the crooks and the cops all come across as real people. This is not a spy adventure or an action film with a hero who overcomes incredible odds. It is an urban thriller that makes it's story feel like it could happen and characters that might really exist. The final clue that nails the hijacker that gets away is even more fun now a days when we see so many stories about stupid criminals. Even though the denouncement is played for a laugh, it also feels authentic.
I'm sure most of the readers of this site have probably watched this film a time or two. Fogs gave me a term in a on-line post that I now use regularly. This is a "Black Hole" film. It's gravitational pull for me is overwhelming, and every time I encounter it I lose another 104 minutes of my life but I gain a 104 minutes of time with story tellers who know what the hell they were doing.
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.