The Taking of Pelham One Two Three/
Reviewed by Jerry Renshaw, Fri., Aug. 18, 2000
The Taking of Pelham One Two ThreeD: Joseph Sargent (1974); with Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Hector Elizondo, Martin Balsam, Jerry Stiller.
Get CarterD: Mike Hodges (1971); with Michael Caine, Britt Ekland, Ian Hendry, John Osborne.
The Seventies were great years for American movies, and especially for the crime film. The stifling effects of the Production Code were long gone, and so were the pretenses of the Sixties. The Eighties and Nineties saw a period of excess, with bloated budgets and star power driving the crime film, but for a number of years in between there was a renaissance of the genre. Mr. Brown, Mr. Blue, Mr. Gray, Mr. Green -- sound familiar? In The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, four men, dressed identically in horn-rimmed glasses, plaid coats, hats, and fake mustaches, take over a subway car in Manhattan. Armed with machine guns, they inform the authorities that they will kill one hostage per minute if the city doesn't fork over a million dollars. Lieutenant Zach Garber (Matthau) becomes the point man for the city and the transit police, handling the communications with the gunmen while trying to stay one step ahead of them. Shaw plays Mr. Blue, the leader and mastermind of the foursome, to ruthless perfection. He refuses to compromise or negotiate with the authorities, but he has a problem or two of his own to deal with. Mr. Gray (Elizondo) is a loose cannon with an itchy trigger finger and a mind of his own. Mr. Green (Balsam), a former motorman who knows the subway system inside and out, may not have the resolve to see the job through. Still, the city coughs up the money (despite its near-bankruptcy), and the job, planned down to the tiniest detail, seems like it may come off after all. Loaded with plenty of familiar character actors, this is a great, neglected Seventies crime movie and an excellent snapshot of a shabby, rundown New York that has largely been forgotten in the Giuliani years. Stiller is terrific as a transit authority police lieutenant, as is Matthau as the rather sour cop who has to outsmart the bad guys. Director Sargent was mainly a TV-movie veteran, having introduced the public to Kojak with the gritty The Marcus-Nelson Murders for TV the year before, and goes a long way toward capturing the attitude and feel of New York in the early Seventies (especially when Matthau tells someone to "shaddap"). Toward the end, the movie begins to build a momentum that's as unstoppable as the runaway subway car full of terrified passengers. In addition to its portrayal of NYC, the passengers of the car make up a good cross-section of urban society circa 1974. The drab, post-Vietnam, Watergate-era malaise of that time has been largely forgotten in the flares-and-disco, all-things-Seventies craze of the last 10 or so years. Watch for blaxploitation star Julius Harris as a high-ranking uniformed transit cop. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three ranks with Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and Serpico not only as a great crime film, but also as one of the great New York City films of the period.
Jack Carter's not a likable guy. Played by Michael Caine, he' s a vicious gangster who thinks nothing of killing anyone who crosses him. Despite his lack of scruples, though, he at least has family loyalty as he returns to Newcastle to find out who murdered his brother. There he finds himself in a sleazy world of porn and gambling; the fact that his probings mean crossing a rival gang means nothing to him as he kicks asses and takes names. The crime film also saw a renaissance in Britain in the Seventies, and this is as tough and gritty of an example as you're likely to find. Seedy industrial Newcastle is the perfect backdrop for Carter's quest for revenge; a haze of smog hangs over the brick smokestacks and Dickensian houses, director Hodges selecting a color palette of drab grays, browns, and yellows for the exterior shots. The movie goes along in fits and starts, with a deliberate pace that's broken up by set pieces of explosive violence. The centerpiece of the movie is Carter, though. He's a bit of a paradox, a fussy hypochondriac and neat dresser who is never seen out of his three-piece navy suit. On the other hand, he's not the kind of guy you can reason or even plead for mercy with. He speaks in clipped sentences (as does everyone else in the script), carries a double-barreled shotgun, and turns into an implacable, cold-blooded killing machine by movie's end. But Carter is as close to a "hero" as the movie comes. The dialogue is a gem of hard-boiled minimalism that could teach modern filmmakers a lesson. A remake of Get Carter is currently in the works, starring Sylvester Stallone as Carter; it's hard to imagine how this dark, bitterly satisfying film could be improved upon.