Remembering the great actor and writer Robert Shaw.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, also known as The Taking of Pelham 123, is a 1974 American thriller film directed by Joseph Sargent, produced by Edgar J. Scherick, and starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, and Héctor Elizondo. Peter Stone adapted the screenplay, from the novel of the same name by Morton Freedgood (under the pen name John Godey) about a group of criminals taking hostage for ransom the passengers of a busy New York City subway car. Musically, it features “one of the best and most inventive thriller scores of the 1970s”.
It was remade in 1998 as a TV film and was again remade in 2009 as a film.
In New York City, four men heavily armed with submachine guns and all donning code names (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown), wearing similar trenchcoat, glasses and mustache disguises, board the Pelham 123 subway train of the 6 Lexington Avenue Local service at different station stops (Green at 59th Street, Grey at 51st Street, Brown at Grand Central, and finally Blue at 28th Street). The men take the train, secure a group of seventeen passengers whom they hold hostage, isolate them in the train’s first car and then separate the car from the rest of the train.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), a cynical and curmudgeonly yet light-hearted New York City Transit Authority police lieutenant, begins his day by leading four visiting Tokyo Metro directors on a tour of New York’s subway command-center. This is interrupted by Blue’s radio announcement to the command center that “your train has been taken.” Blue (Robert Shaw), the English-accented leader of the hijackers, reveals their demands: a ransom of one million dollars, to be delivered to them within one hour, otherwise they will kill one passenger per minute once the hour has passed.
Garber, the sarcastic Lieutenant Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller), and other transit workers cooperate while trying to guess how the criminals intend to escape the subway tunnel and get away. Caz Dolowicz, the supervisor at Grand Central takes matters into his own hands and decides to confront the hijackers personally. As he approaches the train, Grey (Hector Elizondo) warns him to back off but he refuses, so Grey shoots him dead. Various clues soon surface for Garber to figure out; Blue has a very distinctive English accent, while Green (Martin Balsam) has a cold and periodically sneezes over the radio, heard by Garber, who responds by saying “Gesundheit.” Garber surmises that as the hijackers are able to operate the train, one is probably a disgruntled transit worker. He also learns that one of the hostages is an undercover police officer.
The mayor finally agrees to pay the ransom at the urging of his deputy mayor and his wife (“just think what you’ll get in return… Eighteen sure votes.”). Conversations between the hijackers reveal that Blue was a mercenary soldier in Africa and Green was a motorman framed by the Transit Police in a drugs bust. There is also an undercurrent of tension between Blue and Grey; Blue confides to Green that he believes Grey is “mad” and potentially trouble. During the tense wait for the money, an armed police officer in the tunnel shoots at Brown (Earl Hindman), and hijackers and police exchange fire. In retaliation, Blue kills the conductor. The police dispatch a squad car carrying the ransom money. When the car is wrecked in a collision, Garber daringly bluffs to buy some time, telling the hijackers that the money already has been delivered to the 28th Street Station and only the walk down the tunnel is delaying it. A reluctant Blue agrees to the delay.
A police motorcycle completes the trip from the scene of the collision to the subway station and two unarmed officers are sent down the track on foot to deliver the money to the hijackers. With the money finally in hand, Blue gives Garber their next demands: that electric power be restored to the subway line, that all signals in the path of the train be set to green from 28th Street to South Ferry, and all police officers be cleared from the tunnel. Having overridden the subway car’s dead-man’s switch, a safety device which requires a motorman to continually press down on the throttle or else the train will stop, the hijackers get off the train and set it in motion. As the train starts to move, the undercover officer jumps off the train and hides between the rails. The car begins to travel faster and faster, since no one is controlling its speed.
While following the runaway train above ground, Garber becomes convinced that it is a diversion and that the hijackers must have left it. In the tunnel, the hijackers discard their disguises and start their escape into the tunnel’s emergency exit; however, Grey refuses to leave his gun behind as agreed, resulting in a stand-off with Blue, who shoots him dead. The undercover officer, still hiding in the tracks, manages to kill Brown with one shot. Green escapes onto the street, while Blue shoots at the officer until he wounds him. Garber arrives after Green has gotten away and, drawing on Blue, orders him to surrender just as Blue is about to kill the officer. Face to face at last, Blue asks Garber if the death penalty is available in the state of New York anymore. Told that it is not, Blue responds, “pity”, then promptly electrocutes himself by stepping onto the third rail while a horrified Garber watches. Meanwhile the runaway car finally encounters a red signal while entering the South Ferry Loop. The car’s emergency brakes are tripped and it grinds to a halt; the remaining hostages are all safe.
The three dead hijackers are identified, and it is apparent that none has any experience piloting trains. Garber realizes that the hijacker still at large must be the former transit employee. He and Patrone, working their way through a list of former motormen “discharged for cause” (and, by implication, disgruntled), pay a visit to Harold Longman. Longman—known to the audience as Mr. Green—is shown rolling in the packs of ransom money on the bed in his seedy efficiency apartment when Garber and Patrone knock on his door. He hides the money quickly, then opens to the officers and bluffs his way through their questioning. The officers find Longman’s alibi weak, but start out the door, until Longman sneezes and Garber says “Gesundheit.” Garber then re-opens the door, and the expression on his face indicates that he knows he has just found the final hijacker.
In my opinion, Robert Shaw is fantastic in this film! He is the star of this movie and no one, I repeat, no one can replace him. No remakes, PLEASE SEE THIS 1974 FILM VERSION! It’s the Best!