Release Date(s)1974 (July 5, 2016)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM/20th Century Fox (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
If the only version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three you’ve ever seen is the remake from 2009, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The original film from 1974 is one of the best heist thrillers ever put on film. Not only does it feature a tightly-woven plot with good suspense and great performances, but it also has a lot of humor to it, as well as a fantastic score by David Shire to boot.
Based upon the novel by Morton Freedgood (under the pseudonym of John Godey) and adapted by Peter Stone, the movie tells the story of four criminals using the names Mr. Blue, Mr. Grey, Mr. Green, and Mr. Brown (Tarantino fans take note) who take a group of people hostage aboard a New York City subway train car. Once they have them at gunpoint, they order the transit authorities via radio to deliver one million dollars in one hour or they will begin shooting passengers for every hour that passes. Dealing with impossible odds, the transit authorities and local police go to great lengths to try and foil the criminals’ plans.
Joseph Sargent, who had directed the Burt Reynolds starring vehicle White Lightning the year before, helmed the project with a cast of familiar faces, including Robert Shaw. He is absolutely menacing as the leader of the criminal foursome, Mr. Blue. Walter Matthau also gives a memorable performance. At this time in his career, he was on a streak of great crime thrillers that included Charlie Varrick and The Laughing Policemen, both of which are classics in their own right. His performance as the schlubby Lieutenant Garber is the glue that holds Pelham together. His ironic yet sincere take on the material keeps the film moving without ever stopping for a full-on belly laugh. The rest of the main cast includes Hector Elizondo, Martin Balsam, Earl Hindman, and Jerry Stiller, amongst the many other background actors.
Pelham doesn’t bother wasting time with useless character traits or backstory elements. Even the motivations of the four criminals are never really explored. What the movie focuses on instead is the plot itself and not much else, and it’s a better movie for it. Not only is the criminal’s plan and the execution of it quite gripping, but the New York style sensibilities and humor brought on by a useless mayor, who is a worthless figure as the events go into motion, keeps the film grounded in an almost relatable but fictional reality. It’s a very funny movie in some ways, but it never comes at the expense of the story. It also contains one of the best endings to any movie ever, which I will not spoil if you haven’t seen it for yourself.
I should also note that I’ve never read the original novel that the film is based upon, nor have I seen the 2009 remake (or the 1998 TV remake, for that matter), so I have no proper basis for comparison. However, knowing what Tony Scott’s style was late in his career, I can’t imagine that the story of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three benefited much from slick and fast-paced visuals. It’s another way of telling the story that could be valid, but it’s not necessary. It’s difficult to improve upon such a wonderfully-executed film. It may be dated visually, but nothing is dated about Pelham when it comes to storytelling.
For Kino Lorber’s 42nd Anniversary Edition release (an obvious reference to New York’s 42nd street, even though the subway line in the film comes nowhere near 42nd street, but whatever), some will be disheartened to learn that it contains the same transfer used for the previous MGM Blu-ray release (obviously with a different encode). While it would have been nice to see a fresh transfer from scratch, especially since the technology for the process only gets better and better, it’s still a very good transfer on its own. The opening and closing credits feature a bit of a shake to them, but other than that, it’s a fairly stable presentation. It’s also a very grainy but organic-looking film, and this transfer soaks in a lot of the finer details seen in clothing, in close-ups, and in the shadows. It’s still a bit on the soft side, but that’s the nature of the original cinematography, so don’t expect an abundantly sharp and crisp set of images. Colors are very drab most of the time, which really manages to capture a grimier version of 1970’s New York than we’re accustomed to seeing. Skin tones are fairly consistent, although they do dip into orange occasionally. Blacks and both contrast and brightness levels are also quite satisfactory. There’s been no attempt to digitally enhance the film, and there are very little film artifacts leftover, aside from a slight flickering and a thin line running through the edge of the frame once in a while. For the audio, an English 2.0 DTS-HD track has been provided. Dialogue is mostly clear and placed front and center in the presentation, while the score and sound effects fill out the rest. There’s some nice spacing and decent movement back and forth. There’s also a lack of hiss or other leftover aural discrepancies. It’s an excellent presentation overall, although I can’t help but feeling that it could have been just a tad bit better. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
Obviously, the best reason to upgrade is for the extras, as the previous MGM Blu-ray release had virtually none to offer. You also get a couple of pieces of the film’s key art on the front and reverse cover as an added incentive. As for the extras, there’s an audio commentary with actor/filmmaker Pat Healy and film programmer/historian Jim Healy; 12 Minutes with Mr. Grey, an interview with actor Hector Elizondo; The Sound of the City, an interview with composer David Shire; Cutting on Action, an interview with co-editor Jerry Greenberg; Trailers From Hell trailer commentary with Josh Olson; a stills and posters animated gallery; and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Aside from wanting to see some vintage interview material involving the director, the main actors, the writer, and the cinematographer, it’s still a very nice of extras.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of those special kinds of movies, the likes of which we don’t get too often nowadays: a lean, taught crime caper that knows how to add humor into the pot without spoiling the recipe. Excellent performances and a fantastic ending make it one of the finest of its kind. And with the transfer and supplemental material found on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release, it’s a no-brainer. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons