Monday, July 06, 2009

Netflix pick of the month: THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3

Not the one that’s out now. The real TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3 from 1974. It’s hard to believe that Walter Matthau and Denzel Washington would ever play the same role… and Matthau would play it better. But that’s the case here.

Unlike the remake, the original movie (taken from a novel by Morton Freedgood using the alias “John Godey”) was not driven by star power and splashy action sequences. It was a finely-tuned, unpretentious suspense thriller that held your interest every minute… and actually had some great funny lines.

Matthau as the transit authority dispatcher came with a cynical attitude, hardly your typical heroic figure but far more refreshing. Robert Shaw in the John Travolta chief villain role really sold the fact that he was the smartest bad guy ever. To outwit him would be a challenge. Travolta played it like Vinnie Barbarino gone bad.

The original film posed a couple of nifty questions.

How could a frumpy subway dispatcher outsmart a master criminal?

How could the hijackers escape a sealed subway tunnel?

A couple of quick notes: For some reason the movie doesn’t feel dated. I guess dark tunnels haven’t changed much in 25 years. And the four bad guys assume the names of colors (Mr. Green, Mr. Gray, etc.). Sound familiar? Quentin Tarentino lifted that for RESEVOIR DOGS.

The music by David Shire enhances the tension enormously, as does the crisp direction by Joseph Sargent (who cut his teeth directing TV). The screenplay is by Peter Stone, a sensational screenwriter and playwright. (Among his credits: CHARADE and an overlooked little gem, MIRAGE).

So travel back to the days when movies didn’t have to be blockbusters to be successful. When good stories were more important than good buzz. When the leading man could have jowls. Rent THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3. It’ll be the best subway ride you’ve ever taken.

30 comments :

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen the original but sticking it in the queue now.
And as long as we are praising Mr. Stone, let's not forget his wonderful script for "1776". Perhaps the funniest history lesson anyone has ever written.

Mike Bell said...

The only remake I've enjoyed is '3:10 To Yuma." Of course it helps that the original was NOT a classic. It was good, just not a classic - thus, it was Mangold's to screw-up.

The original "Pelham" IS a classic. And pardon me for saying, every change made my sphincter tighten to the point of creating diamonds.

The biggest change that annoyed me was the changing of Matthau's character from a transit cop to a simple dispatcher.

Of course, Denzel could NEVER be a simple dispatcher, so the arc of him becoming heroic is nowhere near as satisfying if the character had been played by a Paul Giamatti type.

Of course it could've been worse. Tony Scott could have cast Kevin James and titled it 'Paul Blart: Subway Cop."

(Not a knock on Kevin James BTW)

t.a. said...

oh man, that final shot of the movie, classic Mathau - what is Denzel thinking? that's just untouchable movie magic.

gottacook said...

Um, that's 35 years... and yes, it's still quite enjoyable, with that finely tuned, sardonic final shot.

I have no intention of seeing the remake; the only movies featuring John Travolta that I've ever paid to see are Blow Out, Pulp Fiction, and Hairspray (the first of these mainly because I was living in center-city Philly at the time and saw one of John Lithgow's scenes being shot, although I didn't know who he was at the time).

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Excellent, Ken! You chose one that's actually available through Netflix! ;)

Wal-Mart's also selling it. I couldn't believe it either. A movie released in the '70s being sold there. ;)

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Before the inevitable correction comes, I meant to say movies released in the '70s that aren't "Star Wars" or "The Godfather."

Ben said...

I stumbled across the original airing on Encore or somewhere about 15 years ago. It immediately became one of my favorite movies. Ken's absolutely right--it's got some fantastic lines. "Even great men have to pee" gets me every time.

John Pearley Huffman said...

How about some love here for Martin Balsam? While Matthau and Shaw (and Jerry Stiller and a dozen other great character actors) all have showier roles, it's Balsam's underplaying the sell the film's climax.

Download David Shire's score from iTunes. It's makes for a wicked ring tone.

Ernest said...

Everything Ken says is true, except it's also available on Hulu these days. Fine, fine movie.

Dave said...

It's a darn-near perfect movie, and the views of New York in 1974 show us just what the city has lost.

Michael Canfield said...

It's also on hulu.com so you can see it the way I first did, ala broadcast TV repeatedly in my childhood, and interrupted by commercials every ten minutes.

Actually there's not the many commercials. It's a great flick.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite movies of all time. Matthau and Shaw are great. I refuse to see the new one. Can't somebody produce a new story. I know there are a gazillion great screenplays out there that could be produced instead of "G.I. Joe" and remakes of great movies from my childhood. Remake bad movies with good stories, not great ones.

rob! said...

Great movie, with an awesome ending! Walter Matthau rocks in action movies (see this, Charley Varrick)!

Dana King said...

I NetFlixed the original a few weeks ago, never having seen it before, and loved it. A taut, well-paced thriller in the true sense of the word, where tension is built and maintained, not just a series of chase scenes and explosions. Matthau was perfect, the civil servant who looks like he's just moving toward his pension but has a lot more on the bal than anyone thinks.

One thing: he's not the dispatcher. He's a Transit Authority cop. he happens to be in the dispatcher's office because he was giving those Japanese officials a tour when the train gets taken.

betty said...

I saw this on TV a few weeks back. I originally saw it in my teen years in the theater in the 70s, though. Maybe even a drive-in.

It was on tnt, amc, CW, or some basic cable station about 3 friday nights ago. Yes, I am that person who is in on Friday nights...

SharoneRosen said...

Never saw the original, but it was one of my Mom's all time favorite movies. She talked about it for years!

Putting in my Netflix cue and gonna check out Hulu today.

thomas tucker said...

Never saw the movie.
Read the original book, though,which was excellent- a real stay up late and keep reading can't put it down nailbiter.
Now I'll rent the movie.

Alex said...

I've been struggling with this important question for a couple weeks now.

Is it stranger than Denzel Washington and Walter Matthau have both played the same role (Pelham) or that Denzel Washignton and Frank Sinatra have both played the same role (Manchurian Candidate)?

Anonymous said...

Ken,

Your mentioning of the music gives me a thought for a future post:

Remember Ladyhawke? Netflix instant streams it, so anyone can refresh their memory immediately. I remember enjoying it when I was a kid. So I started watching it, and could NOT last twenty minutes because the music is just that bad. The world had just discovered the synthesizer, and the alan parsons project banged them like a baby with a pot and a wooden spoon.

They should remake just the soundtrack on that one.

Sean said...

Quick correction: Matthau plays a transit cop, not a dispatcher. Denzel is the dispatcher. Not that anyone is going to see this, way down here at #20, but whatever.

Grant said...

I thought it was funny that the remake didn't use the "Mr. Blue" thing...

Because people would have called it a "Reservoir Dogs" ripoff!

Dana Gabbard said...

Maybe Ken can offer his opinion why do they keep doing remakes of classic films and turn old TV shows into movies. In nearly all cases the box office have varied from so-so to huge bombs. I think The Fugitive with Harrison Ford is almost the only exception (maybe Charlies Angels also?) Why keep doing it if most don't do that well? Even with Will Farrell Land of the Lost tanked...

growingupartists said...

Loved the history lesson, why can't all movies be explained like that?

Bob said...

The Taking of Phlegm 1 2 3? Sounds like at Vicks 44 commercial.

Graham Powell said...

Shaw really was great in this one. I love how he acted like hijacking a subway car was just another day at the office. His best line: "Work dried up."

gottacook said...

Dana Gabbard: I can't agree more; THE FUGITIVE is the best exception to the pattern - not only a very well made picture that bears rewatching, it's also a great Chicago picture, in part because Andrew Davis had already directed a film there (CODE OF SILENCE, the only good Chuck Norris movie).

Buttermilk Sky said...

YES! And the Matthau character is a bit of a racist, but it doesn't turn you off because it keeps getting him in hot water (wait for his first meeting with Inspector Daniels). He's a funny racist. Very tricky to pull off.

Favorite line: "Whadda they expect for a lousy thirty-five cents, to live forever?" It's probably three bucks now, but the attitude's the same.

Anonymous said...

Meh. The Addams Family movies were also pretty good remakes of the old TV show. But yeah, for the most part, no one has figured out a formula for turning TV hits into movie hits -- anymore than they've found the formula for making good box-office hit movies. (I cringe each time I hear about a possible Magnum P.I. movie.)

I remember seeing The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 in the theater when I was a teen in the seventies. It was an exciting and memorable movie. So much so that a few years ago I bought it on DVD, watched it again, and found that it was every bit as gripping as I remembered it.

I have nothing against remakes. After all, it's the SECOND version of Beau Geste that's the best one, and there are many enjoyable versions of The Christmas Carol, or The Front Page, or even Robin Hood. (Oddly, though, there's no enjoyable version of Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer.) But I'm too old to waste my time on bad remakes.

John said...

A couple of quick notes: For some reason the movie doesn’t feel dated. I guess dark tunnels haven’t changed much in 25 years.

Actually, they just opened the new South Ferry station, where the train's brakes are tripped in the original, when it hits a red light and finally comes to a stop on the curve in the station. Do it today, and they'd run straight into a brick wall (which probably would have been an appropriate ending for the remake).

Joe said...

Wolferiver,

The best Beau Geste is Marty Feldman's The Last Remake of Beau Geste...and he was right, too.