Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Taking of Pelham 123: Armed and Dangerous Strangers on a Train

This blog is part of Summer Under the Stars, co-hosted by Jill of Sittin' On a Backyard Fence and Michael from Scribe Hard. Enjoy!
Screenwriter Peter Stone first got on my radar with the suave, suspenseful comedy-thriller Charade (1963), which happened to be released the year I was born!  I became a Peter Stone fan from then on, with my favorites including the equally urbane Hitchcockian thrillers Mirage (1965), Arabesque (1966); Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978), and so much more. Stone wrote the book for many Broadway plays, too, including 1776 (1969); Woman of the Year (1981); Sugar, the Broadway musical based on Some Like it Hot (1972). However, the versatile Stone could write about subjects both urban and urbane.   He sure knocked it out of the park in his screenplay for Palomar Pictures’ The Taking of Pelham 123 (Pelham 123 for short), proving he could write about gritty smart-mouthed characters with the greatest of ease. 

Directed by Joseph Sargent (The Forbin Project; White Lightning; MacArthur), and based on John Godey’s best-selling 1973 novel, film producers Gabriel Katzka & Edgar J. Scherick (Sleuth; The Heartbreak Kid; the 1975 and 2004 film versions of The Stepford Wives) snapped up the film rights, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three hit theaters in 1974.  No offense intended to Denzel Washington, who graduated from Fordham University, my alma mater (he was in the Lincoln Center Campus), though I’m afraid we were disappointed in the lackluster 1998 Canadian version, despite Vinnie having been born on Prince Edward Island!  Don’t hate us!

“Hello, room service?  Send up a larger room!” 
I confess I’ve never seen the 2009 John Travolta/Denzel Washington remake of Pelham 123, and I know there are folks who like it (such as New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott), but for us here at Team Bartilucci HQ, the original 1974 version of Pelham 123 is the only version that matters; accept no substitutes!  Fun Fact: Godey’s real name was Morton Freedgood, and he took his nom de plume from the 19th century magazine Godey's Ladies Book!  Read here for more about Godey!

I was 11 years old when Pelham 123 was released in theaters, having grown up back and forth between two of New York City’s boroughs: The Bronx and Manhattan.  First we lived in The Bronx among the charming suburban areas known as Throgs Neck and Country Club.  Contrary to what out-of-towners of the time might have thought, our particular neighborhood was not in the rough area of the South Bronx that was then dubbed “Fort Apache.”  I went to high school at St. Catharine Academy and graduated in 1981, and in 1985, I graduated from Fordham University.  Mom had always had sort of a restless streak when it came to settling down, but she compromised by making sure we kids were all at least in one terrific school district, while still living close enough to our favorite local places, including short commutes to school and a half-hour’s drive from Riverdale to Manhattan during holiday time, where we could see the Central Park Zoo, the shows (stage and screen), and so many wonderful things that a half-hour drive between The Bronx and Manhattan had to offer!  Our daughter, Siobhan, was born in 1991, and Vinnie worked in Manhattan until the job he worked for at the time relocated to Northeastern Pennsylvania, where we’ve lived ever since.

What kind of people are they?  What breed?
  I'll  tell you:  they’re little people, with hats on—and big machine guns! 
The New York City of my youth wasn’t entirely the chic, sleek, safety-conscious NYC of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the post-9/11 days. The NYC of the early 1960s and 1970s was pretty much the one I grew up with, the one that hadn’t yet found its smile—crime, strikes, pimps, and hookers at Times Square, maybe, but back in 1973 and 1974, NYC was still working on that “I Love New York” campaign before Rudy went gung-ho to get the worms out of The Big Apple.  This was when I was living in the Bronx, back when my older brother used to bring me to the films he liked.  But this time, the usual “naughty” factor of bringing me, the youngest kid in the family, to see R-rated movies with my older siblings wasn’t as strong, because by then, I was 11 years old, and our whole family wanted to see Pelham 123, too, so off to the bijou we went—at least three more times, in fact!  It just goes to show that the family who watches gritty-yet-witty suspense films together, stays together!  For the record, I’m pretty sure we first saw Pelham 123 in the United Artists Globe Theater (no resemblance to The Bard).

Pelham 123’s action occurs on the East Side of Manhattan, where, one by one, four men wearing hats and sporting mustaches board the Number 6 train leaving the Pelham 1:23 subway station, hence the film’s title.  They board Pelham 1:23 in this order:
  • Mr. Green at 59th Street; played by Martin Balsam (Psycho; Breakfast at Tiffany’s; A Thousand Clowns, for which Balsom won the 1965 Best Supporting Actor Oscar).  He’s been sneezing frequently; maybe he’s got that flu that seems to be going around.
  • Mr. Grey at 51st Street; played by Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman; The Princess Diaries; Love in the Time of Cholera; TV’s Chicago Hope).  Constantly chewing gum and leering at women, he’s the nastiest and sleaziest of the gang; even the Mafia wouldn’t take him!  As the film continues, even the rest of the gang despises him.
  • Mr. Brown at Grand Central Terminal; played by Earl Hindman (The Parallax View; The Brink’s Job; TV’s Home Improvement, as half-seen neighbor Wilson.)  He seems to be the youngest of the men, and has a mild stutter.
  • And finally at 28th Street, Mr. Blue, the ruthless brains of the outfit; played by Robert Shaw (From Russia with Love; Jaws; Black Sunday).  It’s been said that the hijackers’ color-coded aliases gave Quentin Tarantino the idea to use that gimmick in his breakthrough film Reservoir Dogs.
Hey, everybody, you know what we need?  A nice sing-a-long!  No?
Pelham 123 swiftly gets down to business when train conductor Denny Doyle (James Broderick of Dog Day Afternoon; Alice’s Restaurant; TV’s Family. Yes, Broderick is also the father of Matthew Broderick, star of stage and screen!  But I digress…) finds himself at gunpoint, forced to relinquish the tools of his trade and walk back through the tunnel.  The subway passengers are a microcosm of typical 1970s New Yorkers, a mix of young and old subway riders with blasé commuters, hyperactive kids, coeds (one of them Lucy Saroyan, kin to star Walter Matthau), drunks, businesspeople, hookers, gay men as comedy relief—oh, well, Iike it or not, you can’t fault people for not being ahead of their time, even a great writer like Peter Stone.  Anyway, it’s just another 34-cent subway ride in Gotham—until those natty gents pull out guns with serious firepower!  Mr. Blue sums up the frightened passengers-turned-hostages’ predicament:
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, you see this gun?  It fires 750 rounds of 9 millimeter ammunition per minute.  In other words, if all of you simultaneously were to rush me, not a single one of you would get any closer than you are right now.  I do hope I have made myself understood.”

"Al, that's disgusting! No wonder you're rock-bottom in the polls!
Raymond wouldn't be such a slob!"

What’s more intimidating to live in:  the world of Dune,
or being a Borough Commander  in 1974 New York in a hostage situation?
If you love Zach Garber’s colorful wardrobe, tell us LOUD!
Meanwhile, Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi of Criss Cross; The Iceman Cometh; Jules Dassin’s The Naked City), the trainmaster in charge of Grand Central Terminal, is not a happy camper, to say the least.  Caz storms down the subway tracks with great speed and much swearing to (the film was R-rated, after all) to see what’s wrong with the backed-up Pelham 1:23.  Approaching Mr. Grey, Caz snaps, "Why didn't you go grab a goddamn airplane like everybody else?"  Alas, even the biggest New York loudmouth is no match for machine guns.  Mr. Grey pulls the trigger, and poor Caz becomes Pelham 1:23’s first casualty!  At least Denny got to leave unharmed!  (Maybe it’s because Denny wasn’t a loudmouth like poor Caz.)  Director of Photography Owen Roizman (The French Connection; The Exorcist; the 1991 film version of The Addams Family) heightens the suspense, especially in the darkness of the subway scenes, bringing film noir to a whole new level.

Mr. Blue has a chilling ultimatum for the straphangers:  New York City has one hour to give the hijackers $1million (which went farther in 1974!), or he’ll start killing the hapless hostages, one at a time!  Police Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau from Charade; Mirage; The Fortune Cookie, for which Matthau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1967), and his partner, Police Lt. Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller of Stiller & Meara fame; Zoolander, before Ben Stiller was even a gleam in his dad’s eye; TV’s Seinfeld and The King of Queens) find themselves becoming hostage negotiators as the one-hour time-limit ticks away. Of course, in a huge metropolis like New York City, particularly Manhattan, things get complicated.  For instance, NYC’s Mayor, “Al” to whatever friends he has (Lee Wallace of Private Benjamin; who also played Mayors in Batman in 1989, and Daniel in 1983.  Incidentally, Wallace also reminds me of NYC’s late former Mayor Ed Koch.) is rock bottom in the polls, and it doesn’t help that he’s “sick as a goat” with the flu and isn’t exactly charming company.  Thank goodness he’s got shrewd Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle (Tony Roberts, frequently seen in such Woody Allen films as Annie Hall and Play it Again, Sam; dramatic roles in Serpico; TV’s Law & Order), and The Mayor’s practical wife, Jessie (Doris Roberts of Little Murders; No Way to Treat a Lady; and TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond and Remington Steele) to keep Al focused on this crisis.  Jessie has one of my favorite lines:
Jessie: “I know a million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but just think what you’re gonna get in return.”
Mayor Al: “What?”
Jessie: “Eighteen sure votes.”
Al sees the wisdom of his First Lady’s words, and they all agree to pay the cool million:
Uh-oh!  Fed-up Zach's ready to rumble with Frank! There's a smackdown in his future!
Mayor Al, feeling more hopeful:  “Jessie, I think I handled it all right.”
Jessie, wryly:  “A regular Fiorello LaGuardia.”  (I say we elect Jessie for Mayor!)
Meanwhile, holding the hijacked subway hostages is bad enough, but Mr. Grey is becoming a loose cannon, and being trapped in an unmoving subway train isn’t exactly doing wonders for the hostages’ morale, especially with a mom and her young sons among them.  As Mr. Blue notes, “Why do you think they threw him out of the Mafia?”
TCMs Lang Thompson says: “New York’s Transit Authority initially wouldn’t allow the film to be made on actual subways because of the fear of copycat crimes.  Mayor (John) Lindsay got involved and the Authority finally gave permission, but still required the studio to buy anti-hijacking insurance, though there were never any attempts.  The credits have a disclaimer that the Transit Authority didn’t give advice or information for use in the film.”   Little did the city realize they’d have far worse problems down the road when the events of 9/11 reared its ugly head, though at least over time, NYC has been able to rebuild and beef up security!  David Shire’s brassy, exciting score immediately sets the tone for action, and suspense.  Fun Fact:  Keeping it all in the family, Shire had been married for a time to Best Actress Oscar nominee Talia Shire of Rocky and The Godfather Part II.

Pelham 123 was nominated in 1976 for The BAFTA Awards, the British version of the Oscars.  Balsom was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, and Shire was nominated for his musical score. Stone was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award for “Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium.”  Thrills, chills, suspense, snappy dialogue—not bad for a 35-cent subway ride!


  1. Love this movie, What. A. Cast! I remember when I watched this, chuckling at the one meeeelion dollar demand. Wouldn't cover a nice NYC condo nowadays, and dven then only bought 18 sure votes. Nice bio details about you and your fam, about the cast and Shire, and I never paid enough attention to the credits to even notice the same screenwriter Stone penned all these cool films. Just recently got Who is Killing the Great Chefs, looking forward to watching it more now that I know. Fun read, thanks for it!

    1. Kristina, my friend, I'm thrilled that you're a fan of the original PELHAM 123, too! Ah, the days when "one meeeelion dollars" was considered a king's ransom; you had me laughing out loud! :-D Thanks for your generous praise of PELHAM 123; I love these blasts from the past, too!

      By the way, coming up sometime soon from Team Bartilucci: a delicious Robert Morley double-feature of WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CHEFS OF EUROPE and HOT MILLIONS!

  2. I came up in NYC a little bit after you did, Dor, but I still have vague memories about the New York embodied in films like this, and it's something I've talked about in my blog.

    Looking at how different the city is now - and the difference is like night and day, almost - there's much that's better now, no question. At the same time, though, there's something about the rough edges, the scrappiness, the attitude, that's inherently part of New York's personality, and it's something that 'Pelham' captures perfectly, especially with the smaller characters, like the subway passengers.

    It's something that transcends race and gender and even class, to a certain degree, and it's something that I believe New York is losing, if not already lost, now that Times Square has been Disney-fied.

    Maybe it's something that only a native New Yorker can truly understand, but when I look at 'Pelham' now, it seems like it comes from a different world. Like I said, I'm glad that the city is cleaner and safer, but it shouldn't have to be at the expense of our distinctiveness, that which makes us unique. Maybe that's part of why I've grown more disillusioned with the city in recent years.

    Don't mean to bring you down, but as a fellow native New Yorker, I know you get where I'm coming from.

    1. Don't worry, Rich, I understand where you're coming from when it comes to NYC in the '70s, being my hometown and all. :-) I don't think the city will ever completely lose its scrappiness, especially considering that so many people come from so many places to make it their home, for better or for worse or a little of both! :-)

  3. Very nice write-up, Dorian! Not having been in New York during that time (we lived in New Jersey, but we visited Manhattan from time to time; however, given how overprotective my parents were, we tended to stay away from the more crime-ridden neighborhoods), I liked all the anecdotes about the city at that time. And you go deeper into the supporting characters than I did. Like you, I don't like the 1998 made-for-TV version (and having seen the 2009 version, I can say you're not missing much), and no version (or rip-off) has measured up to this version.

    1. Thanks for your positive feedback, Sean! In your parents' defense, I can understand how they might have been leery of having you venturing around NYC back in its wilder days. Once I became a parent myself, I became a little more sympathetic about such things to a degree, though not a "helicopter parent," I hope! ;-) I'm glad you enjoyed my anecdotes from my own NYC days, too!

  4. Dor, I've never had any interest in this film until I read your excellent review. With interesting characters, suspense and Walter Matthau's yellow tie, what's not to like! I'm really keen to see it now.

    Also, thanks for sharing your memories of growing up in NYC. They made for wonderful reading. I feel like we all know you a bit better now. :)

    1. Ruth, I'm tickled to hear you enjoyed my PELHAM 123 review and my memories of growing up in various parts of The Big Apple -- thanks, my friend! I think you'd really enjoy the film; Peter Stone was The Man here at Team Bartilucci HQ! This is also one of my favorite Walter Matthau roles; he makes loud ties look good! :-D

  5. "The NYC of the early 1960s and 1970s was pretty much the one I grew up with, the one that hadn’t yet found its smile—crime, strikes, pimps, and hookers at Times Square."

    Please don't take this the wrong way, Dorian, but I always felt the NYC you grew up with was a lot more interesting. Perhaps if I had to dodge cars driven by Gene Hackman or Roy Scheider, or witness Laurence Harvey playing a game of solitaire, or even (hey!) been hijacked while in a subway my opinion would be different. Here I have to confess that, when I partook of the subway back during my NYC visit in the early 80s, I was checking out my fellow passengers for dramatic potential (and you don't even want to know what was running through my mind years later, when I was on the London Underground).

    It goes without saying that Child Bride and I also very much prefer the Sargent version of "Pelham". And giving additional respect to the likes of Washington, Travolta, etc., the original film gave us gritty and more easily simpatico characters. I suspect real NY transit cops are closer to Walter Matthau and Jerry Stiller than the actors used in the later versions.

    Besides, who else but Matthau could've given us that absolutely primo denouement which wraps up the film? No gun battles (maybe he learned his lesson while chasing Audrey Hepburn in Paris), no explosions . . . just a deliciously hound-dog look back at Martin Balsam. Yummy!

    (And Robert Shaw's end, while perhaps not cinematically explosive, still rates a severe wince from me.)

    A word more about Godey's novel: the character of the undercover policeman gets a much larger role in the book than he did in the movie. There's a small subplot regarding his girlfriend who hates him for being a "pig" (and yet, while recuperating the hospital, she shows up and throws herself on him, sobbing "Piggy, Piggy, Piggy . . .").

    Giuliani may have cleaned up the city, but in doing so he made New York a lot less interesting as a place to film crime dramas. Oh well . . . win some, lose some.

  6. Michael, I had to smile when you commented: "Please don't take this the wrong way, Dorian, but I always felt the NYC you grew up with was a lot more interesting...." Well, as you and other pals have commented, quite a few of us have been nostalgic for the, shall we say, more outlaw-style 1970s NYC. Personally, I think if you have an opportunity to visit NYC, you'll find there's actually a decent balance between squeaky-clean good clean fun, and fun of a more naughty bent. Get started with a subscription to TIME OUT NEW YORK, and see if that gets you where you want to go -- couldn't hurt! :-)

    Anyway, my friend, I'm glad you enjoyed my PELHAM 123 comments and memories, especially: "No gun battles [maybe Matthau learned his lesson while chasing Audrey Hepburn in Paris (in CHARADE]... no explosions . . . just a deliciously hound-dog look back at Martin Balsam. Yummy!" We couldn't agree more, Michael! You've also reminded me that I've been meaning to get ahold of John Godey's novel. That "Piggy, Piggy, Piggy" bit is worth the price of admission itself, so to speak! :-D So glad to catch up with you -- you're always welcome at TotED!

  7. That final shot of Matthau (gasundheit) tickles me no end. "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" still works perfectly and is particularly scary for this lifestyle transit user.

    My personal experiences in NYC didn't occur until later in that decade, but watching the movie always puts me in mind of "Barney Miller". For a show that rarely moved outside its precinct set, it really captures that same atmosphere.

    1. Caftan Woman, I'm delighted that you enjoyed PELHAM 123 too, and that you too get a kick out of Our Man Matthau, especially that delightfully iconic final image! You make a good point about the comparisons to BARNEY MILLER, also a favorite show of mine back in the day. I'd be curious to hear about your personal experiences in NYC, if you want to share!

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  9. Dorian, Yes, this is a great film and a much grittier look a NYC than the remake. Nothing against the Washington &Travolta remake but in comparison, it's just okay at best. I pretty much agree with Michael W's comments above. The book which I remember reading on the subway while going to and from work might have made the read a little more chilling (LOL). Loved you reminiscing!

    1. John, we're glad to have you joining the PELHAM 123 conversation, especially since you were a New Yorker yourself! Since I posted PELHAM 123, you've got me wanting to catch up again with John Godey's original novel; I'm almost tempted to track the book down and read it on the subway the next time Team Bartilucci visits NYC, just to see if any straphangers might notice! :-) Thanks for your positive comments, and I hope you and Dorothy are having a fine Labor Day Weekend!

  10. Honestly Dorian, I don't remember ever seeing this movie. I love Walter Matthau and I'm happy he got an Oscar. Back then I wasn't as leery of movie violence and bad behavior as I am today. I had the tolerance of youth! Ha. I might not be able to enjoy the film now. But I did enjoy reading your fabulous post - as usual. I LOVE DORIS ROBERTS!

    1. Yvette, we're so glad to have you back where you belong, writing your own swell movie blog posts over at "...in so many words," and now commenting ever so kindly on my TotED post here on THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123! True, PELHAM 123 is more rough-and-tumble than the late great Peter Stone's usual suave style, but it just goes to show Stone was versatile! :-) And by all means, count me into the Doris Roberts Fan Club, too! Beaucoup thanks for your kind comments, my friend! :-D

  11. Dorian,

    What a great piece! I really enjoyed your anecdotes about growing up in the city. I've only seen the original film and not the remake. I'd like to keep it that way. ;)

    Thanks for a wonderful contribution to the blogathon.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind kudos for my PELHAM 123 post, Jill! I also want to applaud you and Michael for doing such a great job on the SUMMER UNDER THE STARS BLOGATHON, as always; heck, it wouldn't be summer without you! While I haven't gotten around to seeing the 2009 version, I nevertheless agree with you that the 1974 version will always be the champ! :-)