Mark Metcalf
Moving Pictures

Taking on Pelham, past and present

By - Oct 26th, 2009 11:53 am
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The 1974 original

The 1974 original

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a very simple little heist movie except that it may be the best one ever made.

Four men hijack a New York City subway car on its way to Pelham and hold the passengers as hostages for a $1 million ransom. The original version was made in 1974. An updated version came out in theaters earlier this year; its DVD is scheduled for a Nov. 3 release.

I lived in New York City for 23 years and took the subway pretty much every day. Sometimes, if I had a little time to spare and it was one of those four nice days you get in New York, I’d take the bus and use the transfers to get where I was going. If it was late at night, and I’d been in the bars a little longer than I should have, I’d take a cab. But mostly I took the subway. It was a good, quick way to get around; you traveled with hard-nosed, pushed-to-the-wall New Yorkers who were in a bad mood. It wasn’t clean, but it didn’t smell too bad, and there usually weren’t many tourists. When I first moved there it was a 35-cent ride. By the time I moved to LA, it was more than a dollar but still well worth it.

The original version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is rich with actors who took the subway everyday. You’d see Kenny McMillan, Earl Hindman, Rudy Bond, Jimmy Broderick (Matthew’s father), Nathan George, Dick O’Neill, a young Jerry Stiller, even Martin Balsam, Walter Matthau and Julie Harris all on the subway at some time, going to work, to an audition, to dinner or out to the track (in Matthau’s case). New York used to be a small town in its peculiar way, and the subway was one of the things that kept it small. The subway is also a great equalizer. You get on a train that stops between stations for a half-hour, and everybody waits together; nobody gets special treatment.

Each of the actors that I mentioned earlier shares that commonality. Their common bond is what makes the film work so well, too, well that and the fact that it is a great script by Peter Stone from a good novel by John Godey. The actors understand that they are all in it together and that they are New Yorkers with 12 different accents and 14 different heritages but with the same address — the street in The City. The Brit, Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, has the good sense to keep his head low, do his crossword puzzle and let the city guys take care of business.

The 2009 remake

The 2009 remake

But that’s not so in the recent remake. John Travolta, as the brains behind the subway hijacking, now called Ryder, does one of his center-of-the-ring, carnival-barker, generally loud performances. He is entertaining, but he’s all by himself, and that’s the way he likes it. Denzel Washington, in the Matthau part, also tends to work alone. They are both movie stars first and foremost; “actor” is just what appears under occupation on their passports. The only actor that brings New York City to the table is James Gandolfini as the Mayor. In other words, Tony Soprano is the Mayor.

In the original, you get a glimpse of the lives of the 17 passengers-turned-hostages as the director allows the actors to have a moment, a personality. It is important to the story that the people who everyone fights to protect are people that we know and care about. But in the Tony Scott (updated) version, they are a faceless mass — except for one boy, who is in contact with his girlfriend via Skype on his laptop. And, his character serves more as a device than a person. Use of the laptop turns out to be a convenient way for subway headquarters to find out what’s going on inside the train.

Quentin Tarantino liked the first version well enough to honor it by using the same system for naming his thieves in Reservoir Dogs; everyone is a color.

See the original — always see the original. But see the remake too, so that you can see how far from the art of storytelling we have wandered.

0 thoughts on “Moving Pictures: Taking on Pelham, past and present”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Mark, thank you for the article. I had just pulled this up a couple of months ago online, but stopped watching it not far into it – I knew I wanted to own this film! Especially with Robert Shaw in it. Ordered a dvd, which just arrived the other day. Strange how this article happens to also show up…. There was another version of this – but I think made for t.v. Not really interested, at least until I’m past the original. Looking forward to this. Too funny for me to see an article on this. Love the background you give it.

    Take care,


  2. Anonymous says:

    Should have looked a little closer at the posting date…


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