It’s 1974 in New York City. Four armed men hijack the first car of a subway train and demand that the city pay one million dollars within one hour, or they will kill one hostage for every minute the money is late. This nostalgic flashback isn’t your average ’70s thriller—it’s above the flood of gore and aggression that fuels most of those films. Rather, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three relies mostly on dialogue and good characters to build and maintain suspense.
The film plays more or less in real time, following the hijackers through the subway, the members of the mayor’s office deciding if they should pay the ransom, and the transit police trying to foil the hijackers’ escape. All the characters other than the leader of the hijackers have that New York attitude where they openly speak their mind, try to keep appointments, and have sarcasm ready if anything gets in their way. The hijackers keep an air of mystery as they are all coloured a different shade of evil and each has his own personality.
The suspense is carried mostly between “Mr. Blue” (Robert Shaw), the leader of the hijackers, and Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) of the transit police. Lt. Garber uses sarcasm and his wits to draw out the deadline for the money delivery while Mr. Blue uses his firm militaristic command of the situation to keep the city on his schedule. The picture doesn’t rely on explosive action scenes to maintain suspense; the mandatory death toll and the climactic finish are merely consequences of character-driven drama.
What makes this film addicting until the end is the power of information. The viewer is spoon-fed tension and drama throughout, while having a god-like overview of all the action. Because of this dramatic irony, we know what everyone looks like, we know where they are headed, and if two parties are going to clash soon. We are also present whenever a major decision is being made. But even with all that information we are not told the key mystery that stretches throughout the film: how do the hijackers plan to escape? As far as anyone knows, they’re stuck in a tunnel with no exits.
To me, Pelham is nearly perfect. The cast is solid, screenplay is good, there is character drama, the score is powerful and fast, the tension and suspense are constant, there’s mystery, the pretext is simple, and the cinematography is an obvious strength. That being said, it doesn’t have a moral and feels a tad repetitive at times. Nonetheless, the film is, by today’s standards, very colourful and gritty and remains a hidden gem within the great films of the 1970s.