Netflix UK film review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Ivan Radford | On 03, Jan 2015
Director: Joseph Sargent
Cast: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw
Watch The Taking of Pelham One Two Three online in the UK: Netflix UK
From the moment David Shire’s jazzy score starts its engine, you know The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three is going to be a good ride. Driving forward with all the force of a freight train, it drips with French Connection cool and Ipcress File tension, all shifting railway rhythms and horn-like screeches.
It’s that attention to detail that makes Joseph Sargent’s thriller such an exciting watch. It helps that the plot is so simple: a group of men hijack the titular subway train, demanding $1 million to be paid within an hour – or a hostage will be killed every minute past the deadline. But Sargent packs out every inch of the screen with realistic flourishes, from the bustling streets of New York to Peter Stone’s script’s pointed explanation of the dead man’s switch that keeps the carriage running. Even the passengers taken prisoner, ranging from a mum with kids to a wise-cracking guy, feel like a precisely picked cross-section of society.
If that risks giving the stakes a slightly generic feel, though, the peril is ramped right back up again by the humane turn by Walter Matthau as our lead: Lieutenant Zachary Garber of the transit police. Matthau gives it all the charm he’s got – which, incidentally, is more than most – as the everyman cop, not above making flippant comments when saddled with chaperoning a group of Chinese tourists around the station, but conscientious enough to make sure he saves all the innocent lives he can. While Matthau brings the heart to the table, he’s well matched by the icy chill of Robert Shaw. Playing the leader of the pack, his hijacker is scarily ruthless, but also intimidatingly smart. The pair bounce off each other with sizzling chemistry – despite the fact that they only conduct their conversations over the radio.
Shaw’s meticulous planning ensures that at every stop on the line, the odds of heroic victory edge slightly further away down the track. But Garber’s equally methodical, plodding along with a purpose that echoes Sargent’s own unrelenting pace. There’s even time for satirical humour, with the introduction of the mayor who’s more concerned with public reaction than people’s safety.
Between the note-perfect performances and the accurate presentation (tunnel scenes were filmed in a decommissioned Brooklyn station), the result is a hugely suspenseful subterranean heist; a gripping combination of blockbuster sass and urban paranoia that has influenced more action flicks than you might think. Thought coloured code names were a Tarantino trick? Or that Die Hard invented walkie-talkie banter? That’s the joy of The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three: noticing new elements in the background every time you watch it. The movie is as simple as it gets, but the key’s in the detail, from the ever-blinking signal board in the control tower to Mr. Green’s cough. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.