Rent it now: ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’

If you’re the type of movie buff who won’t watch a classic unless it’s available on Blu Ray, I’ve got good news for you — the terrific 1974 thriller “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” was finally released in that format last year.

When it first came out, the story of the hijacking of a New York City subway train was popular and well reviewed, but audiences took its witty screenplay, high caliber cast and clever plot for granted.

In those pre-CGI days, superior thrillers and action pictures had to be powered by strong plotting and characterization because filmmakers didn’t have access to computer special effects and the lightning fast editing that is much easier with digital moviemaking than old-fashioned cutting by hand.

The passage of time — and the general decline in lucid storytelling in movies — has made “Pelham One Two Three” look better and better. At least once a year, I run into a young movie person who has just “discovered” the film and can’t stop talking about it (this happened to me again a few weeks ago).

The movie looks especially good in comparison with the substandard 2009 remake which had none of the wit or grittty realism of the original.

The 1974 picture was part of a wave of New York-based 1970s productions that showed urban life in a whole new light. Some moviemakers used the stressed-out city for shocking dramatic purposes — i.e. “Taxi Driver” in 1976 — but “Pelham One Two Three” showed how seen-it-all New Yorkers weathered the storm with defiant humor.

40 years ago, instead of “Fun City,” wags started calling The Big Apple “Fear City.”

Those tough times were preserved forever in dozens of movies that were shot on location after Mayor John Lindsay created the New York Film Commission which made it easier than ever to film on the streets of the city.

Lindsay made the policy change in 1966, not realizing that moviemakers would be drawn more to the squalor of Manhattan in those days than the glitz that could still be found in various enclaves of the rich and famous.

The pictures shot in New York in the 1970s have a raw quality — you couldn’t hide the fact that the city was in the middle of a social and cultural breakdown — and the reality of the backdrop pushed actors to be as authentic as the setting.

Method specialists Al Pacino and Robert De Niro emerged from the New York films of the 1970s, but so did Diane Keaton and Jill Clayburgh.

So many good movies came out of New York 40 years ago that it took quite a while for “Pelham One Two Three” to receive the recognition it deserved. It was only with the passage of time that film buffs and young moviemakers such as Quentin Tarantino began to appreciate the incredible filmmaking craft that went into this thriller about a subway hijacking.

The criminal gang — led by mercenary Robert Shaw — all dress identically and call each other by color-coded names (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, etc.), a device that Tarantino tipped his hat to in “Reservoir Dogs.”

What separates “Pelham One Two Three” from most of the other 1970s New York crime pictures is the black comedy that director Joseph Sargent and screenwriter Peter Stone found in such an explosive premise.

The transit cop who negotiates with the hijackers is played by Walter Matthau in one of his best and most droll performances. The actor captures the essence of the blase New Yorker who is ready to cope with whatever bizarre situation he faces next.

Stone also uses the financial catastrophe of the city for some wry joking. When the hijackers demand $1 million, the mayor and his minions aren’t sure if they can raise the cash in a few hours.

“Pelham One Two Three” must have been a logistical nightmare —with much of the film shot on subway platforms and in the tunnels connecting them — but it has a documentary feel that you just don’t find in contemporary Hollywood movies.

It also happens to be one of the funniest thrillers ever made, but the jokes are so organic that they never get in the way of the steadily mounting suspense.

Joe Meyers

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