Taking on Pelham, past and present
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.
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.
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.