Adapted for the screen in 1974, 1998, and 2009, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is like A Star Is Born for hijack thrillers, Mark argues.
“These tunnels don’t change much, do they?”
“Just the people in them.”
This exchange in 2009’s The Taking Of Pelham 123 is more loaded than it initially sounds. Based on a 1973 crime novel by John Godey, the story involves an audacious hijacking on the New York subway, in which the titular train and its 18 passengers are held to ransom by four heavily armed men. This story has been told more than once before and more than likely will be told again.
We might be tired of hearing the old cliché that New York is like a character in any movie set there, but that’s demonstrably true in the three distinct screen versions of Godey’s novel. Hugely popular upon its original publication, the novel provides a highly adaptable nuts-and-bolts thriller story that can be tailored to different eras in the Big Apple as easily as the different versions of A Star Is Born have reflected the entertainment industry.
Such was the original impact of the novel that the New York City Transit Authority initially banned planners from scheduling trains to leave Pelham Station at 1:23 a.m./p.m., to avoid frightening the public. This policy was later withdrawn, but it reportedly lingers as a superstitious tradition for subway dispatchers in light of the ongoing cultural significance of the “Pelham 123” call sign.
As you’d expect for three movies each made a decade or two apart from one another, there are key differences in the telling of the story. In all three takes, it’s basically a battle of wits between the leader of the hijackers and the man on the other end of the radio at the dispatcher’s desk. But each version makes different choices, acknowledging the different identity of New York in the movies at the time they were made. It’s not just the ransom amount that’s adjusted for inflation over time.
If you haven’t seen all three versions, or if you haven’t seen any of them yet, we’ll try not to get into major spoilers here, but it’s fascinating to look at the different approaches of Joseph Sargent’s original classic, Félix Enríquez Alcalá’s reverent TV movie, and Tony Scott’s turbo-charged remake.
“Screw the passengers! What do they expect for their 35 cents — to live forever?!”
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three originally came to the big screen with the tagline “Everybody read it, now you can live it.” On account of the book’s huge success, Peter Stone’s adapted screenplay was hot property shortly after the book was published. Among various other directors, a pre-Jaws Steven Spielberg was at one point attached to bring it to the screen.
While United Artists executives were hugely impressed with Spielberg after seeing The Sugarland Express, they felt the popularity of the property made it “director-proof” and attempted to find another, more creative projects for him. Instead, the director’s chair went to Joseph Sargent, who had just helmed another Spielberg cast-off, the Burt Reynolds vehicle White Lightning.
Tantalising as it is to imagine what might have been, Sargent’s film is still one of the great underappreciated thrillers of the 1970s. Casting Robert Shaw as criminal mastermind Mr Blue and Walter Matthau as level-headed transit cop Lt. Zachary Garber, the film generates huge suspense from the premise. Will the city pay the $1 million ransom in the hour they’ve been allotted? Will Mr Blue follow through on his threat to kill one passenger every minute that they don’t? And just how do the hijackers expect they’ll get away at the end of it all?
Masterfully paced, the film cuts between the transit office, the train carriage, the city streets, and the Mayor’s house, (where Lee Wallace gives a terrific performance as the unpopular and ineffectual politician charged with authorising the ransom payment) as the deadline comes closer and closer. Its wicked line of gallows humour never undercuts the broiling tension and David Shire’s terrific score underlines the excitement of it all.
Sargent’s adaptation is economical in a way you can’t quite imagine Spielberg doing at that time (the director has freely admitted that he didn’t learn to bring in a film under time and under budget until 1981’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark) and the result is a lean, mean, and endlessly rewatchable thriller. Although Matthau and Shaw are front and centre, there are brilliant, lived-in supporting performances all around, especially from Hector Elizondo and Martin Balsam as the other hijackers.
What’s more, it’s more of a New York movie than any other version. It gets a lot of production value out of the crime-addled burg that would be immortalised by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver a couple of years later, right down to shooting scenes on the actual subway tracks and sending the cast and crew home covered with dust and grime after certain pivotal scenes.
As for the hostages, their initial reaction to being informed that their train is being hijacked is to laugh it off, at least until the guns come out. While the film gets plenty of mileage out of the muckiness and profanity of 1970s New York, (“How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?”, one potty-mouthed dispatcher asks incredulously) it ultimately speaks to the indomitable spirit of the people who live there.
Allowing for a few un-PC but largely inoffensive moments, Sargent’s take on Pelham One Two Three holds up remarkably well 45 years later. Even after the suspense winds down, the epilogue offers one of the greatest final shots of any movie ever made, which is a tough act for any subsequent remake to follow.
Did you know that Quentin Tarantino borrowed Reservoir Dogs’ colourful codenames from Sargent’s film? It’s frankly unlikely that you did, but when the next screen version of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three came along in the 1990s, it was QT’s film that was arguably better known. Félix Enríquez Alcalá’s version adapts Stone’s script rather than Godey’s novel, with screenwriter April Smith making a few choice deviations to bring the story up to date.
Produced by MGM Television and originally broadcast on ABC, this TV movie stars Vincent D’Onofrio as Mr Blue, whose hijacking is documented via CCTV during the opening title sequence. Edward James Olmos plays NYPD detective Anthony Piscotti, who’s called to the transit office in response to the hijacking, rather than simply being on duty when the call comes in, and the bare bones of the story are the same from there.
At the time of writing, the 1998 film is currently streaming on Netflix and to look at it now, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a straight remake of Sargent’s film. Making a very male story a little more inclusive, Smith finds room for gender-flipped characters like Miss Brown, one of the hijackers, and the train’s conductor. Another addition comes in the form of Lorraine Bracco as Detective Ray, who partners with Piscotti up to the very end of the movie.
New technology is also a factor in this take, with the hijackers using a motion detector on a laptop to detect sneaky SWAT teams in the tunnels rather than relying on sight. Another tense moment on the tracks that continues the Die Hard mode of intrepid TV news reporters almost cocking everything up. However, with a TV movie budget, both the subway scenes and the exteriors are shot in Toronto, rather than New York.
D’Onofrio is the most valuable player by some distance, bringing the requisite malice to Mr Blue and echoing Shaw’s performance without cribbing from it. Elsewhere, the Reservoir Dogs of it all seems to have got to Donnie Wahlberg, who’s channelling Michael Madsen’s Mr Blonde more than Hector Elizondo with his leering, psychopathic asshole routine.
Plus, the famous ending is much more heavily foreshadowed (Richard Schiff’s Mr Green should have rung in sick with a cold that bad) and more clumsily handled when it arrives. The similarities overpower the new bits and, if you’ll forgive the unavoidable pun, it seems as if it’s on rails.
Elsewhere, there’s a topical reference to a 1993 mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road, providing a “ripped from the headlines” feel that was especially popular in US crime drama series during the 1990s. Twice removed from both the original film and the city it’s supposed to be set in, this is the weakest of the three takes, feeling more like a feature-length pilot for a bog-standard procedural series (“Piscotti, Thursdays on ABC!”) than a thrilling update of a classic.
“You know, we all owe God a death.”
On the other hand, when Tony Scott’s film departs from Pelham Station in the first 10 minutes, it makes a bigger departure from the source material and both previous versions of it. Written not only after 9/11, but also after the economic crisis of 2008, Brian Helgeland’s script swerves any comparison to what has come before just as soon as everyone is aboard.
For instance, the revelation that one of the hostages is an undercover cop, which is played for suspense throughout both of the previous versions, comes much earlier and ends bloodily. The film starts much as it means to go on, and there’s no denying that this is the loudest and bloodiest version as well as the most distinct.
Following in Shaw and D’Onofrio’s footsteps, John Travolta stomps about like the kind of tattooed psycho loon who has finally forgotten about the notices he got for Battlefield Earth. As Ryder, (the Reservoir Dogs codenames are filed off this time around) he screams and swears and mugs for the duration, substituting any malice and subtlety for volume and a handlebar moustache. It’s a despicable bit of showboating that I’ll admit put me off the film until I re-watched it for this feature.
As the foil to this hysteria, Scott’s regular collaborator Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, a disgraced transit executive who’s the wrong man at the wrong desk on the wrong day. Backed by John Turturro’s weary hostage negotiator, this Garber is much more of an everyman, which makes a far more agreeable adaptation than whatever Travolta thinks he’s doing.
The late, great James Gandolfini also offers terrific value as the traditionally useless Mayor of New York. His expanded role is worlds apart from Wallace’s sickly portrayal but bound by the same venal political motivations. Multimedia news outlets also play a larger role, with one of the passengers live-streaming the entire hijacking for the world to watch along and the harried Gandolfini having to field untimely questions about his extramarital difficulties during one face-off.
But what the film gains above ground, Travolta basically tramples like the acting tyrannosaurus he thinks he is in this movie. On the train, there’s next to no interplay between him and Luis Guzman (in the fired motorman role) and the other two hijackers might as well be anonymous.
The film is at its worst when rising to meet his semi-improvised histrionics, (“Lick my bunghole, motherfucker!”) condensing the already stripped-down structure so that there’s time for a more generic run-around in the third act. Unusually, much of the action feels distractingly cartoonish, and Scott’s take on the mad last-minute dash to deliver the (now-$10 million) ransom includes one of the most hysterical, over-the-top stunts in the director’s entire filmography.
In spite of this, there are moments in which Helgeland’s script (a rewrite of an earlier draft by David Koepp) cuts through and finds more of a connection to its characters. With the modern terrorism context, there was never any chance of the hostages shrugging off the gunmen at first sight and there’s an instant panic. Later on, a subplot involving an African-American passenger and a young mother reaches a surprisingly moving pay-off.
The thing that sums it up though is a rare moment of quiet reflection between Washington and Turturro as they ride in a helicopter to another location. Against the backdrop of the now drastically different New York skyline, their exchange speaks to very modern American anxieties about terrorism and, more affectingly, retaliation. Although it’s preposterous that any version of this story requires a bit with a helicopter, you’ve got to admire Scott for making it worthwhile.
Perhaps it’s unfair that the film was so roundly drubbed in comparison to the 1974 film, because unlike the TV movie, this does try to do something different. It’s not a radical reimagining of the essential story, (nor is it a superior one) but it does offer some solid 3-star thrills. Funnily enough, Scott and Washington followed this up with 2010’s Unstoppable, essentially a monster movie about a runaway train, which most would argue was much more their speed.
However, the unimpeachable movie structure that supports any version of Pelham 123 still allows for some worthy additions, despite all the noise-making hysteria around it. Finally, it doesn’t just copy the original final shot and instead comes up with a more suitably cathartic release. If another version rolls into the station in the next 20 years or so, it’s the right approach to take.
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