The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a perfect example of how to mix humor and drama in film. Humor comes from natural dialogue as characters try to make sense of a hijacked subway train stopped in the tunnels of New York. It never interferes with the emotion or intensity of the events to ruin the moment.
Even the ending of Pelham is a gag, but a perfect complement to the rest of the piece. Lt. Zachary Graber (Walter Matthau) realizes the criminals holding the subway hostage are smart and in control, making a point of it numerous times throughout the film. What takes down the final hostage-taker is an uncontrollable act of nature, the only thing that cannot be accounted for.
Lee Wallace, playing the Mayor (the first of three times in his career) with no actual name in the credits beyond “The Mayor,” is the only sore spot in an otherwise stellar cast. His portrayal of an inept politician is too far gone to even believe election was a possibility. The citizens hate him, and ironically, so does the film, kicking him out of the entire third act.
Pelham is an intelligent script, logically delivering exposition in the opening moments through a group of Japanese businessmen on a tour given by Graber. Any necessary plot points about the system itself are taken care of quickly, logically, and with a laugh.
Tension is high with Joseph Sargent’s direction generating thrills in a confined space. Hostages are forced to huddle together, and a gunman is almost always in view.
However, it must be noted that Robert Shaw sells much of the tension. Despite not hurting or injuring any innocent people, his sly smile, accent, and general uneasy nature as he looks at his hostages is brilliant. He cannot be trusted, with a controlling nature that leaves you with the feeling he could snap.