Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)

This weekend we watched the original version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I was very interested to see how it would be different from the 2009 version with Denzel Washington and John Travolta. I like the remake, but this is definitely a case of an OK film being made from a truly great film-- one that just could not be made today.

The film is about a hijacking of a New York subway train. The hijackers go by code names: Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey and Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino copied this in the film Reservoir Dogs). They are types: the leader, Mr. Blue, played by Robert Shaw (the captain of the boat in Jaws); the crazed ex-mafia hitman; the disgruntled subway employee who knows how to drive the train and the very expendible guy. They want a million dollars. Very quickly the City decides to pay them, and then try to catch them. It's a hostage situation, and anyway, how are they going to escape from a subway?

Both versions of the film have some suspense. The hijackers are going to start killing people if the money isn't delivered in 30 minutes. Given city and other bureaucracy, this is a virtually impossible deadline. There is a car chase, crash, etc. There is also negotiation. In the original version, the subway cop in charge is Walter Matthau. In the remake, it's Denzel. And it's in the handling of these main characters: Mr. Blue (Travolta/Shaw) and Lt. Zachary Garber (Washington/Matthau) that we see the primary difference in the two movies.

The remake is about the psychological interaction between these two characters. Their motives, their abilities, who will get in whose head most quickly and most completely... Washington's control center is at the center of a room, like a space commander's desk, and everyone is focused on him. Will he do it? Will he be a hero?

The 1974 version does not really give a $#@& about these two characters. The movie is about New York City. The city is at the center of the film, and it is populated by a huge number of characters, all equally vivid, all equally engaged, and all in motion.  The hostages on the train are not given names even in the credits; they are listed as the pimp, the prostitute, the hippie, the Latino woman, the secretary, the grandmother with kids, etc. But this does not mean they have no personality to share with the audience. Oh, no, indeed not! They are vivid and essential. They are fascinating.

As are the city employees. The city cops, the transit cops, the motormen, the brakemen, the dispatchers, the station agents, the mayor (who seems to foreshadow Ed Koch) and his assistant, and the rest. The most immediate difference is the room from which Matthau works. Almost no one stops to see what he is up to. He himself doesn't even stay by the phone. He is moving around, checking in with people, including a cop who "doesn't negotiate with terrorists" and is very unhelpful, mostly whining about how difficult this incident is making it to run the trains. People are re-routing and doing their jobs, which don't stop because of the incident, but get more difficult.

This is a great movie about New York City. And what it does that is not really done these days is, it trusts the audience. It trusts that the audience will be interested in this story, this depiction of New York City in motion. It thinks city offices and a train car underground will not be static or boring, and do not need the infusion of a psychological battle of stars to keep our attention. The remake is really a common formula today, no different from Phone Booth or Inside Man. And it's too bad, because really, New York City is just as interesting-- if not moreso-- now, as it was in 1974.

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