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Blu-ray Review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

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The original 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a gripping thriller about the hijacking of a New York City subway train. The film stars Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Walter Matthau, and Hector Elizondo. The film is based on a 1973 novel of the same name. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a dark and gritty look at 1970’s New York. The film is free of modern action film clichés, which allows the thirty-seven year old film to remain fresh and exciting.

A subway car is boarded one seemingly average afternoon by four mustached men wearing trench coats and carrying large cases. They board separately and do not draw much attention. As the train rolls along two of the men force their way into the engineer’s booth and force him to stop the train. They unhook all the cars and take the eighteen passengers aboard hostage. The repercussions of their actions are soon felt as the New York subway system grinds to a halt. Confusion takes over as the control center (look for Jerry Stiller as one of the transit authority officers) tries to figure out what’s going on. In the meantime Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Matthau) is leading a group of Japanese transit workers on a tour of his station not knowing there is a crisis about to surface. The mystery of what’s happened to Pelham One Two Three is solved when a call comes into to the transit authority.

The car has been hijacked and the perpetrators want one million dollars within an hour or they will kill one of their hostages each minute the payment is late. The transit authority frantically tries to contact the mayor for the ransom and the hijackers wait with their hostages below the city. Modern movie conventions might make viewers expect a daring rescue from a Rambo type character, but that’s not what this movie is about. Instead we get a debate on much human lives are worth. It seems the mayor of New York City (Lee Wallace) is very unpopular and is coming up for reelection soon. If he pays the ransom will he be considered a hero for saving lives or will he lose votes for overspending in a down economy?

We don’t know much about the hijackers. They go by code names such as Mr. Blue and Mr. Grey (the inspiration for the character names in Reservoir Dogs). One of them (Balsam) knows how to drive the subway trains. One is British (Shaw), and one is a trigger happy loose cannon (Elizondo). We don’t know their motivations other than they want money. This is one of the great things about The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. We don’t know their backstory. We don’t know if one of them was fired, or their wife left them, or if they were abused as a child. It doesn’t really matter what their backstory is, because the movie is not about why they are doing it. It’s about what they have done and how a city deals with it.

What’s best about The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the detail. The banter between the transit authority officers, the diverse group of hostages, and the little character details make this film feel real. The mayor is suffering from the flu as he debates whether to pay the ransom or not. The first and only woman in the transit authority office has dropped her wedding ring down the toilet. Two kids excitedly look out the subway car window. It’s these little details that make this film seem like something that could really happen. Even the hijackers themselves seem genuine. Robert Shaw, as the leader Mr. Blue, is excellent in his ice cold delivery. Walter Matthau is also great as the beleaguered lieutenant who wants nothing more than to solve the crisis, but is bogged down in bureaucracy.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is an engaging film with excellent performances. It is definitely worth watching. The film is presented in 1080P AVC MPEG-4 encode, 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This is a dark movie, but the detail is surprisingly very good. The colors are inherently drab, but things like Matthau’s bright yellow tie or the shiny brass button on police uniforms really pop out. The natural grain of the film has not been cleaned up, which preserves the original look of the film. Some may find it too grainy, but I like that it looks like a seventies film. The sound is presented in a DTS lossless 2.0 mix. The dialog is mixed well and easy to hear. The city sounds come through pretty well, particularly the noise of the subway. The film is pretty quiet at times. The silence of the captured subway car is a nice contrast to the noise of the city. This disc contains no special features save for a theatrical trailer.

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About Sherry Lipp

Sherry Lipp is an entertainment and food writer who specializes in film and television reviews. She has published the gluten and grain-free cookbook Don't Skip Dessert.