“The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”, predating the 2009 version, which I have not seen, by 35 years, is a thriller, yes, but its opening 10 minutes, or so, is not exactly thrilling. It is pragmatic. It simply sits back and watches as four men with topcoats and moustaches board, one by one, a New York subway train on different cars. Each man does not so much appear ominous as “up to something”. Slowly but surely their plan, coordinated by Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), evincing the colored code names the hijackers take, a concept Quentin Tarantino pilfered for “Reservoir Dogs”, emerges. They draw guns and assume control of the train’s first car, detach the others and then isolate themselves further down the tracks, employing their hostages to demand a ransom of $1 million from the NYC Transit Authority. There is a calmness in the demeanor of these men and a precision in their actions. Even if Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) is revealed as having an itchy trigger finger, his aura is nonetheless relaxed. There is no grandeur to this takeover; it just happens, step by step. And that speaks to Joseph Sargent’s film as a whole, one that goes about its business without histrionics or explosive action.
In fact, the first time we see the movie’s ostensible hero, Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), New York City Transit Authority police lieutenant, he’s asleep, underscoring the film’s whole low key vibe. And when he suddenly finds himself on duty, negotiating with Mr. Blue, Garber never comes across high strung or like a traditional action hero. Yes, there is a late scene, as there has to be, when he is skulking about with a gun, but when he pulls it Matthau doesn’t have his character play the moment for valor; he plays it as all part of the job. He comes across more like a having a sandwich while doing a little work. He’s not frightened by the situation so much as he is annoyed and confused. “Will ya?!” he barks at one underling when he’s interrupted while conversing with Mr. Blue. And that is what Matthau’s entire performance conveys – “Will ya?!” He can’t quite figure how this Mr. Blue plans to abscond with a million bucks from the depths of a subway. “They’re gonna get away by asking every man, woman and child in New York City to close their eyes and count to a hundred,” he says, and Matthau gives it the ring of a Catskills comic.
Not to worry, though, because Mr. Blue has a plan, yes he does, and he will not stop at nothing to achieve. Wait, that sounds pretty voracious, doesn’t it? “Stop at nothing”? Mr. Blue is not that kind of voracious. As played by an immaculate Shaw, Mr. Blue is cool and calm and his very real menace exudes from that cool and calm. Look at that way to tends to crossword puzzles as he issues orders to Garber about how he will execute hostages if he doesn’t get what he wants. With most movie characters issuing those kinds of proclamations, you’ll know they’ll bend, at least a little, but you never think Mr. Blue will bend. You think Mr. Blue will off an hostage and go right back to 12 across. The viewer starts to feel like Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), who keeps wishing that Mr. Blue would bend and not be so ruthless.
Mr. Green is supposed to be, in a way, the audience surrogate, the wronged former transit worker who just wants to get his. He’s also got the seasonal cold with the cough that you know – you just know – is the tell that will come back to get him in the end. It does, making for an almost drolly elliptical ending, and fair enough. There is something, however, more oddly moving in the comeuppance of Mr. Blue. I hope I’m not telling tales out of school to reveal that Mr. Blue doesn’t get away in the end. He doesn’t. And it’s the way he doesn’t that is weirdly, scarily effective. He might be a madman, but he never goes mad. He remains hyper-calm, even in the face of defeat, out-foxed, albeit barely, and has the good manner to accept his defeat rather than lash out. And as he puts his foot on the rail and electrocutes himself, it’s hard not to kinda admire the guy for a plan so tight he has even afforded himself a foolproof out if he cannot get away.