The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Rated R; Directed by Joseph Sargent; Starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Hector Elizondo, Martin Balsam, Jerry Stiller, Lee Wallace
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 opened up last weekend. A thriller about four criminals commandeering a subway car and holding its passengers for ransom, the film offers an entertaining story. A remake of a 1974 film starring Walter Matthau, the newest version isn’t bad, but is it better than the original?
Comparing movies made 35 years apart will bring up a lot of obvious differences. The fist change is due to inflation. A million dollar ransom sounds rather small, doesn’t it? That was the going rate for a subway car of hostages in 1974. The new film ups that to 10 million dollars. Yet the money is small change compared to the casting change. Walter Matthau in a thriller? Sure, Denzel Washington can carry that off, but Matthau? The funny thing is, Matthau is superb in his role as a New York City transit cop.
The 1974 script offered Walter Matthau a chance to shine. Using humor in the film while ratcheting up the tension, the script allows Matthau’s reactions to the hijackers, coworkers, and the bureaucracy of pre 9/11 New York City to give the movie a lighter feel. He’s smart, sarcastic, and good as his character.
The quietly menacing Robert Shaw (Jaws) is a very different criminal than John Travolta’s flashier villain. In this movie Shaw’s cold-blooded mastermind creates no sympathy in the viewer. His compatriots are also much more distinct than in the newer version. Hector Elizondo, Martin Balsam, and Earl Hindman become individual characters, as do the hostages. The new film doesn’t allow the hijackers or most of the hostages to stand out.
In 1974, New York City was facing a financial crisis. The city was often depicted in films as an urban hellhole. The 1974 film gives us this sense of a city that can barely get by, including a sickly mayor who only wants to remain in bed (Lee Wallace). Compared to James Gandolfini’s expensively-dressed and dynamic mayor in the new movie, the 1974 version plays the city administration for laughs.
Pacing and editing may seem slow for today’s audiences, and the movie doesn’t go for silly action hijinks that seemed necessary for an up-to-date film. The original film stays smart and allows Matthau’s character to be a good investigator, ending with an especially fun scene as he searches for the bad guys (no silly car chase here).
Clothing, cars, and technology from the 1970s look ridiculous to 21st century eyes, but if you can get beyond that, 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a fun and involving movie. Compared to the 2009 version, the script is tighter and holds together better. Best of all? It has Walter Matthau.