The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 X 2

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

1974, 104 mins., unrated, B & W
Director: Joseph Sargent
Screenplay: Peter Stone

2009, 121 mins., R
Director: Tony Scott
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland

Although there is only one daily No. 6 New York City subway train on the Lexington Avenue line that leaves Pelham Bay in the Bronx at 1:23 PM every day on its long journey to South Ferry at the tip of Manhattan, there are now two subway hijack films called The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Both films join a growing number of distinguished films that take us underground to explore the defining mode of transportation for the metropolis. (Both are adapted from the novel by the same title by John Godey.)

As a subway and–more to the point–a subway film fan, I’ll confess that I was worried about a re-make of my beloved film starring Walther Matthau as control room desk jockey, Zach Garber, and Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue in the original, with a major role given to the always wonderful Martin Balsam as Mr. Green. (For Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino stole his gang member’s names, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, and so forth, from the first Pelham film, which rounded out its palette with Mr. Grey and Mr. Brown). And as the first snarky reviews cames in, even from my usually reliable Roger Ebert, I began to have doubts, although A.O. Scott cheered me up with his remarks in the New York Times, calling the film “a sharp little parable” about New York City.

Of course all subway films are about the essence of the city and if they need to be parables or metaphors or icons, fine, too. New York and its subway in 1974 was as rumpled as Walter Matthau’s look and performance but in the end that was the point after all: The Big Apple comes through when it has to. And certainly that is still the point in 2009, although more people have to be shot point blank because some filmmakers like Tony Scott can’t work in any other way.

Both films use the same below ground/above ground schema, cutting back and forth between the subway and either the operations room where Garber sits or the city streets. The remake nicely drops the mayor’s mansion in favor of a subway car taking the mayor, played by James Gandolfini, a la NYC’s current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to work. Actor Lee Wallace does an uncanny  Mayor Ed Koch imitation in the first film four years before Koch became mayor! (Abe Beame was mayor when the film came out.) He is obsessed about getting re-elected, but Gandolfini’s mayor can’t wait for his term to end so that he never has to ride the subway again. Nevertheless this mayor declines an escorted limo when news of the hijacking breaks out because “we can get there faster on the subway” and when his aide tries to go direct without stopping, the passengers complain until the mayor gives in: “We’ll still get there faster,” he brags.

It is hard to discuss these films without dropping spoilers, so watch out for the third rail. The duel in the first film between Mr. Blue and Garber is more cerebral than the second film. Mr. Blue threatens to kill his hostages just as Ryder does, but only Ryder shoots two in cold blood. In the first film the obviously psychopathic Mr. Grey (played by Hector Elizondo) kills a busybody from the control room approaching the train mainly because he wants to: “Guess we’re on the scoreboard now.” In the end when Blue is cornered he opts for suicide by third rail, while Ryder offers Washington’s Garber a more complicated challenge.

And speaking of challenges: the second film makes Garber a demoted supervisor because he is being investigated for accepting a bribe to promote one company’s bid for new cars over another’s.

When Ryder finds out this fact he builds a strange and convoluted bond between Garber and himself that is riveting to watch. And since this Garber was once a motorman, he can be brought underground to drive the hijacked subway car. We get fascinating views of tunnel life in both films, especially the semi-secret emergency exits located all along the tracks. The second film one-ups this inside look by having the hijackers escape through a disused station (actually a freight platform for the former powerhouse of the New York Central Railroad) connected to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel: at least these scoundrels exit in style.

Both films offer anyone who hasn’t had the honor of riding the world’s busiest subway a chance to do so vicariously, as long as one doesn’t mind a cramped ride or a dirty platform or an occasional view of a “track rabbit” (drop the “bbi”), one of whom does have a brief star turn in the second film. The beauty of the system, its amazing speed and grace, however, will come at you at least—in pre-digital talk—24 frames a second. And speaking of the digital age, a number of plot updates are possible because of SKYPE and the Internet, but you still can’t use your cell phone down there.

Further Reading:

Scott, A. O. “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors.” New York Times, 12 June 2009: A positive review, noting “that Ryder, like most overachieving movie bad guys, fancies himself a righteous avenger and a philosopher of the deed, but he is really a demonic, hyperbolic incarnation of greed, a symbol of the money culture run amok.”

2 Responses to “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 X 2”

  1. Subway Lover Says:

    Two points:

    Robert SHAW, not Ryan, played Mr. Blue in the originl movie. Also in that film, though Lee Wallace, who played the mayor, resembled Ed Koch, Koch was not elected mayor of New York until several years after the movie was made. The mayor at the time was Abe Beame.

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