At the moment, New Yorkers hardly need another object lesson in nonchalant resilience during total municipal breakdown, but darkened encounters with the ghost of Abe Beame don’t come more giddily thrilling than Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. A quartet of furry-mustached drones in lumpy trenchcoats boards a southbound 6 train and nobody blinks. Scattered complaints register when a car detaches and the rest of Pelham 123 rolls backward. You can even hear a few giggles in the stranded carriage when the rifles come out. What is this, some kinda performance art? Close: It’s a hijacking, which may shortly gridlock the entire New York subway system.
Back at the Transit Authority’s central hub, Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau, too sexy in broad yellow tie and loud plaid shirt) plays tour guide to a delegacy from the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway System. (Peter Stone’s script leaves paper cuts at every turn, and here it delivers a terse gotcha to that battered comedy crutch, Foreigners Are Funny.) Soon enough, though, Garber’s the unflappable man at the mic, negotiating via squawk box with alpha ‘jacker Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw). Blue and his color guard, Grey, Green, and Brown (Quentin Tarantino copied the gimmick for Reservoir Dogs) issue a simple demand: $1 million cash in one hour; for every minute late, one of the 18 abducted passengers dies. So what does the mayor have to say about all this? He’s stuck in bed at Gracie, felled by the same bug that keeps Mr. Green so inconveniently sneezy, and looking a lot like Ed Koch.
In a few years’ time, Koch would wrest the mayor’s office away from beleaguered blackout host Beame, who hadn’t been in office a full calendar rotation before Pelham debuted in October 1974—year of Nixon’s resignation and Philippe Petit’s tightrope stroll between the new twin towers, which back then stood as moon-surface totems of irresponsible spending and a moribund Lower Manhattan. Ford would tell the near-bankrupt city to drop dead in ’75, and the film’s operative mode is harassed camaraderie, from the wiseacre friction in the TA’s “noive center” to the spontaneous chorus of “boo”s sent up when a crowd of rubberneckers catches sight of the mayor. Even Garber’s dry pragmatism finds a rhythm with Mr. Blue’s round-voweled impassivity. (A former British army colonel and mercenary, Blue calmly reads a crossword puzzle book between chats with Garber.) Bootylicious with tuba, David Shire’s score mates blaxploitation bomp to vintage-cop-show rattle and dread (maybe a prime reason the Beastie Boys salute Pelham in “Sure Shot”); indeed, Sargent’s whole enterprise doubles as a ’70s archaeological dig, its eureka moment arriving when the cop car with ransom in tow crashes in a grimy, pre-Starbucks Astor Place.