by NIR SHALEV
Four men hijack a New York City subway train with pistols hidden within their overcoats. When one of them produces a machine gun, the hostages begin to laugh. Another criminal produces a machine gun and no one laughs anymore. The train is driven into a tunnel but only its first compartment containing 17 hostages.
The criminals have color-coded names: Blue (Robert Shaw), the leader; Green (Martin Balsam), the ex-train conductor; Grey (Hector Elizondo), the unstable criminal who is also a racist; and Brown (Earl Hindman), the big guy who follows orders to the tee. Quentin Tarantino must have had this film in mind when writing Reservoir Dogs.
Elsewhere in the New York Subway Control Center, Lieutenant Garber (Walter Matthau) of the New York Transit Police is leading a group of Japanese men on a tour of his workplace; they are the directors of the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway System. Garber overhears that the subway train Pelham 123 has been taken hostage and he dismisses the tourists. He begins to take all precautions for the hostage negotiations beginning with doubting the criminals’ true intent. He is laid back in style but is intent on performing his duty to the best of his abilities.
Blue is always in control and when speaking to Garber over the radio he assures him that he’s in control. He does not negotiate and he demands one million dollars in cash from the mayor of the city to be delivered within an hour. When the mayor gives the go Blue exclaims that he wants the cash delivered as follows: “$500,000 in 50’s and $500,000 in 100’s, in stacks of 200 bills each and bound with thick elastic bands.” He gives detailed instructions and expects punctuality. Garber assures him that such demands will take more than 60 minutes to prepare and deliver, seeing that it took over 30 minutes for the mayor to simply come to the conclusion to pay the money but Blue is not interested in hearing excuses.
The film takes place mostly underground and within the first half we honestly cannot tell what time of day it is. Because the subway tunnels are nearly pitch black we subconsciously assume that it’s nighttime and also because we are told that Pelham is the destination and 1:23 is the departure time; AM or PM is never mentioned. It’s a neat trick.
The film does not have a musical score. Music is not necessarily important in films and in this one a lack of music serves well. When suspense builds, the sound of air rushing through the tunnels fills us with anticipation and in the Command Center we hear the humming of the electronic stations. We do hear an occasional ’seventies tune as source music but it’s rare.
Walter Matthau is ideal for this film because although it is essentially a suspense thriller the fact that we recognize him from comedies places us in immediate ease. He is in control as much as Robert Shaw (the actor’s performance and his character’s determination) but he keeps light and jokes once in a while. Additional comic relief comes in the form of Lieutenant Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller) of the New York Police. His talk-backs with Garber are hilarious because they are good friends, and in such a drab yet serious environment one must keep up his wits or else one would go crazy. It’s like they say: cops and paramedics have an outstanding sense of humor because due to what they see on a day-to-day basis they must remain in a joking mood or it’s the razor to the wrists.
I liked this film a lot, as a suspense film that kept me guessing and as a film of the ‘seventies. The costumes and hair styles fit, the cars bob like boats, and the one time that Grey uses the N-word to a black hostage the rest of the passengers reel back in fright. It’s a period piece that could only have come from the ‘seventies. The decade was a better time for bank robbery and jewel heist films. Now it’s just the technical aspects: the brilliant scheme, the technology and gadgets used, and the colorful cast of characters that make up a group of uninspired caricatures. Back then it was about the characters and what the bad guys would do if they managed to get the goods. How many of them would actually survive against their “friends?”