A gang of thugs who have hijacked a subway train near New York's Pelham Station threaten to kill one hostage per minute. Forced to stall the assailants until a ransom is delivered or a rescue made, transit chief Lt. Garber must somehow ad-lib, con and outmaneuver one of the craftiest, cruelest villains ever.
"I've taken your train."
There are plusses and minuses for any remake of a classic film that comes down the Hollywood pipeline. On the positive side of things, the remake can draw attention to the original film that may have been forgotten or pushed to the sidelines with only a niche fanbase. On the flip side of that coin, the original film can become tainted by an inferior needless remake and can loose the attention of new viewers as a result. Such is the case for 1974's 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.' When Tony Scott's remake 'The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3' dropped in 2009, it was met with a poor critical reception and an apathetic audience who also didn't take a shine to the original 1974 film. The original film is still a classic, but those people who saw the remake first may not have given the original a fair shake. Seven years removed from that terrible remake, it's time people give 'Pelham' another look.
The plan was stitched together to perfection. Four men, criminals, each with their own unique specialty board a New York Subway train. The cool as a cucumber Brown (Earl Hindman) and the sleazy blowhard Grey (Hector Elizondo) are the muscle. Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) is the disgruntled subway motorman. Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) is the brains behind the whole operation. Their big plan is to take control of the Pelham-bound train, detach all but one car, and hold the remaining passengers ransom for one million dollars.
Back at MTA headquarters, all hell is breaking loose. Transit Police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) and his partner Lieutenant Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller) are left playing puppet for Blue and his cohorts. They have an hour to get the money approved for release by the Mayor of the city (Lee Wallace) and his deputy Warren (Tony Roberts), have it counted, delivered to the closest subway station, and then transported up the line to the hijackers. It's a difficult task in even the best of conditions and when you have to deal with government bureaucracy, it's impossible. Garber is pushed into a cat and mouse battle of wits against Mr. Blue in order to buy more time and rescue all of the hostages, and hopefully, catch the men who took the Southbound Pelham 1 2 3 train.
If I were stranded on a deserted island and could only bring ten movies with me, the original 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' would be on the list. The movie is tense and suspenseful throughout but at the same time it has a natural balance of humor that gives the audience a chance to breathe and is endlessly entertaining. As proven many times over, Robert Shaw can bring a terrifying sense of danger to any film and his performance is menacing. He's cold, calculating, and not above killing a man to make a point. On the other end of the microphone is Walter Matthau who delivers a smart and clever performance as a jaded cop. Matthau's natural sense of humor helps keep the film balanced without it being too hard or too silly to be believable.
While the drama in the subway and the tension in the MTA control center would have been enough for the film, Director Joseph Sargent and his screenwriter Peter Stone add in their own sharp-witted political commentary with the seemingly inept Mayor of the city played by Lee Wallace who does whatever his deputy tells him to do. While most of this subtext is grounded in 1970s New York City politics, it's pretty easy to extend it to modern era political wrangling, where the importance of a buck and how many votes it can buy outweigh any other decisions. The best moment of this is after a slick montage of money being counted, stacked, rubber banded, and packed away complete with the incredible David Shire score, the film cuts to the Mayor experiencing the unpleasantness of having his temperature taken with a rectal thermometer.
Taken as an adaptation of the John Godey novel, the film is actually a lot better. While the film keeps the flow and the plot of the novel relatively intact, it's the characters who shine in this film. In the novel, they were all relatively lifeless cardboard stand-ins. They were there because a character had to be there, not because there was a relevance to them in terms of the greater story. Here, every character from Mr. Brown and Mr. Grey to Mr. Green and Mr. Blue to Garber and the politicians above him, they actually have a place and purpose since this film is framed as a suspenseful political satire.
I was a fan of 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' long before the unfortunate 2009 remake ever made its way to movie screens. I tried watching the remake several years ago but had difficulty making it all the way through. It was all style and no substance or heart, so I never felt it dented or diminished the reputation of the original. That said, there are many unfortunate film fans out there who saw the remake first. Normally I don't mind remakes, they can sometimes bring some new material to the show and stand apart of the originals, but I feel the 2009 'Pelham' damaged a lot of viewers perceptions of the original. In my view, the 1974 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' is a near-perfect suspense film. It has a tight and tense premise, fantastic performances across the board, an incredible score, and the right amount of humor to keep the action lively and entertaining. And that is saying nothing about the incredible ending which I will not spoil here. If you're a fan of the original 'Pelham,' stay that way. If you didn't care for it after seeing the tragically terrible remake, seven years is enough time to warrant giving the original another look with clear eyes. If you're still not a fan after that, well, there's nothing I can do for you but you'll have at least given it an honest shot to win you over.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics line. Pressed onto a Region A BD50 disc, the disc arrives in a standard Blu-ray case with cover artwork taken from one of the original release posters instead of that terrible photoshop work done for the previous release. On the reverse side of the artwork is a replica of the original half-sheet movie poster. The disc opens with a static image main menu with the David Shire end credits theme playing in the background with traditional navigation options.
In a case of Bad News/Good News, this release of 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' arrives with the same 2.35:1 1080p transfer as the 2011 Blu-ray release. While I would have loved to have seen this film get a fresh new scan, I'm still perfectly satisfied with this transfer as it maintains a very film-like presentation. While some people complained about the strong grain field present throughout, I found that it added a pleasant raw and gritty feel to the image that was consistent with what a 1970s era New York thriller should look like. It shouldn't look video smooth and there hasn't been any DNR applied. Colors have that drab New York brown and grey look to them while also allowing for some primary pop when and where it can. Flesh tones are also natural and healthy looking. Black levels are a tad on the hazy side of things and never quite approach inky blacks, but there aren't any crush issues to worry about and contrast feels even.
Some people complained that this transfer is too dark, but that could be because previous home video releases were artificially brightened, given that over half of this film takes place in a dark shadowy subway tunnel. Details are strong and sharp throughout so if this presentation really is darker than it was during its original theatrical run, it doesn't have an impact on costuming detail, facial features, or the impressive production design. I've always felt this transfer was leaps and bounds above the previous non-anamorphic letterboxed DVD and I hold to that opinion.
The good news for fans of 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' is that the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio mix has been slightly reworked. This is not the exact same audio track as the previous 2011 release. The 2011 release clocked in between 2.0 and 2.1 Mbps. This 2016 '42nd Anniversary Edition' comes in between 1.7 and 1.8 Mbps. The result is a much more balanced and tonally even presentation. Right out of the gate the opening David Shire score has a lot more power and presence but it has a better balance to it. The powerful bass thunders while the saxophone interludes don't sound so piercing and shrill as they once did. Once the main feature gets running, dialogue maintains its front and center presence as before, but it sounds more organic to the mix. Atmospherics and background sound effects also sound slightly tweaked to give the scenes in question a better sense of space and dimension. Imaging is effective as there is a notable sense of movement to the action, particularly when the train is rushing through the tunnel towards the end of the film. Free of any hiss or pops, this is a notably improved audio mix that easily stands out in side by side comparisons.
Audio Commentary: Actor/Filmmaker Pat Healy and Film Historian Jim Healy the two brothers have a lot of great things to say about the film as well as covering the various production aspects, its place in history, cast, crew, and the John Godey novel.
Interview With Hector Elizondo: (HD 12:01) This is a very cool and informative interview with the great actor. It covers how New York was in the 70s, how he got the part, what shooting conditions where. Also points out the lack of graffiti on the train. Fun stuff if you're a fan.
Interview With Composer David Shire: (HD 9:06) It's awesome to see a feature recognize the score of a film, especially this one considering how many times it's been sampled for modern music. He's got a lot to say about his process and being open to improv.
Interview With Editor Jerry Greenberg: (HD 9:08) It's interesting to hear from the great Oscar-winning editor about the editing process and working with Robert Q. Lovett to find the film, work through the structure issues, and editing for speed and action.
Trailers From Hell with Josh Olson: (SD 2:39) Olson has a lot of cool things to say about the movie.
Stills Gallery: (HD 2:19) This is a collection of production stills and posters set to the David Shire score.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:32)
For my money, 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' is one of the best 70s New York thrillers. It's got suspense and thrills without losing a sense of humor or becoming so absorbed with itself and some kind of social message. It's a simple story told well with exceptional pacing and one of the best scores to come from composer David Shire. It's one of my favorite movies and I'm thrilled to see a back catalogue movie like this one getting a proper special edition release. This '42nd Anniversary Edition' arrives from Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics line. It may feature the same strong 2011 image transfer, but the DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track has been reworked and is a huge improvement over the previous release. Kino has also put a solid effort into bringing some worthwhile extra features with a solid audio commentary and cast and crew interviews. If you're on the fence of a double dip for this title, this new release of 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' is a vast improvement and absolutely worth the upgrade. I'm calling this one highly recommended.