Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Thirty-Eight

#38 — The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
While it’s interesting to speculate on the various intricacies within the movie industry that led the American cinema of the nineteen-seventies to have a little more heft to it, sometimes the explanation is ridiculously simple. The movies of the seventies were grittier because the life it was reflecting was grittier. There was a wound on the nation thanks to epochal events like the Vietnam War and Watergate, but there was also a general and pervasive grinding down of day-to-day existence. Cities in particular were turning into paved wastelands as no one was quite able to figure out how to deal with the ongoing exodus to the suburbs. Simply by depicting that, honestly and intently, movies were able to take on a more authentic version of the brick battered lives that were the blessed splendor of old film noir crime films. Only now, even the routine toilers had some smoke-smudged anger to them.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is about the hijacking of a New York City subway train. Naturally, that means there a lot of focus on the back and forth between the criminals and those on the the other side of the law, meaning both the hostages in the train car, hoping desperately that they emerge from the ordeal unharmed, and the men on the other side of the radio, trying to talk these psychopaths out of doing something drastic and dreadful as the strike the balance between pushing back and acquiescing to demands. In the classic Hitchcockian sense, the relies on building suspense: the potential terrible outcome and its seeming inevitability is established, the question is just how long until the metaphorical bomb goes off and whether or not the more heroic forces can stop it. There are no stalwart heroes here, however. Instead, it’s just a bunch of guys doing their jobs on what happens to be a really shitty day at work.

Joseph Sargent, something of a directing journeyman who was presiding over Kojak episodes as recently as year before, brings a tight, shrewd momentum to the filmmaking. Whether by intent or deep instinct, Sargent is as duty-driven and no fuss as the municipal workers he depicts on screen. Most of those characters are more concerned with the disrupted sanctity of the transit schedule than they are with the quivering innocents on the train, and Sargent displays a similar devotion to making his film run on time. He couldn’t have found a better partner for that unfussy attitude than his lead actor. Walter Matthau’s onscreen persona was well-established at this time, and he plays directly to it as New York City Transit Authority police lieutenant Zachary Garber. He’s gruff, impatient and made visibly wearier every time he depresses the button on his radio microphone to communicate with the lead hijacker played by Robert Shaw. He’s an unironed shirt, and one retrieved from the bottom of the hamper at that. There’s a rumpled functionality to the character, and that’s about it, with Matthau quietly relaxing grandly into every moment of slumped disdain.

Much as I might like to draw conclusions about the superiority of genre exercises a few decades ago on the basis of this film, even that ultimately puts too much artistic burden on the work. There’s no statement to the sly, almost accidental artistry of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I doubt anyone who worked on the film did so with a fervent conviction that they were going to show everyone just how this sort of thing in done. On the contrary, I’d wager most of them were taking a plain punch-the-clock approach, which, of course, suited the material perfectly.