Did you watch The Taking of Pelham One Two Three yet? The Walter Matthau version, not that other piece of crap. The whole thing is on YouTube, though probably not for long, so you should watch it RIGHT NOW! The first time I saw it was back in about 1970 on a nine-inch black-and-white television set, so you’ll be seeing it about the same way except IN COLOR and with all the swearing.
There’s a lot of swearing, in the spirit of making the characters talk like New Yorkers, I guess, one of my favorite things about this movie. I didn’t know they cussed like that until I rented the movie twenty years later because, before video rentals, the only way for me to see it was on the late show, when all the cussing was dubbed over with “hecks” and “gosh-darneds.” Did you know “the late show” used to be a generic way of referring to movies they showed on television after ten o’clock? Then it became the name of Letterman’s comedy gig, as well as a way for old farts to get off the subject.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is still one of my favorite heist movies, not least because of the musical score, which must have come to composer David Shire in a nightmare. I’m thinking alcohol might have been involved. It has been whenever I’ve had nightmares that sounded like that.
Then there’s the cast. Martin Balsam. Robert Shaw. Walter Matthau. Jerry Stiller. This guy. You know him, you’ve seen him in dozens of movies, you just don’t know his name. I sure didn’t.
And the movie doesn’t waste any time getting started. It’s about four guys who hijack a New York subway train. Ten minutes into the movie, they’ve already done it. The rest is Walter Matthau trying to figure out how Robert Shaw and his gang are going to escape a subway tunnel in possession of a million dollars worth of tens and twenties without being caught.
As it turns out, Garber, the transit cop investigating the heist and Matthau’s character in the movie, never does catch on. His boss, a chief inspector named Daniels, comes up with it in a phone call to Garber, who tells Daniels why that won’t work, then not long afterward Garber suggests exactly the same thing. Not unreasonably, Daniels calls bullshit on Garber, but listens to him anyway, and why wouldn’t he? Daniels thought of it first. But no plausible explanation is ever given for Garber dumping on Daniel’s idea, then backing up and claiming it must be the solution to the mystery. It’s one of the most poorly-written scenes in the film.
The only other scene that didn’t work for me involved Matthau again: Garber and this guy do a Frick and Frack routine all through the movie. Matthau was obviously cast for this part so he could fire off one quip after another in his Matthau-like way, and this guy was his counterweight. Then, for no reason that I have ever been able to make out, Matthau goes all Clint Eastwood on this guy, giving him a thorough ass-chewing before throwing him into his chair. It’s completely out of character and totally unnecessary. In fact, it pretty much shot the dynamic between the two characters all to pieces.
(I’ve read that the end of that scene was a goof: Matthau was supposed to drop this guy into his chair, but shoved him as he let go of this guy‘s shirt front. The chair tumbled over, this guy fell on his ass and the glare he gave Matthau at the end of the take was out of character. He was genuinely surprised and not a little pissed at being thrown on the floor.)
Those are minor nits, though. I must have watched this movie half a dozen times on the late show, and at least a half-dozen times more when I found a copy of it on VHS tape at Saint Vincent de Paul’s thrift store. I’m this close to ordering a DVD so I can watch it again.
Little bit of trivia for you: The first sound uttered in the movie comes from Martin Balsam, sneezing. The last line spoken is, “Gesundheit!” Nuff said.