Taking of Pelham One Two Three Original Trailer

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We at Northwest Film Forum often find ourselves complaining about the onslaught of remakes of classic films that has been more intense in the past decade. However, if one looks for the positive effect on this phenomenon it is that a bad remake can still call attention to a good classic film that may have been highly influential but is more or less forgotten by the culture at large. Case in point: Joseph Sargent’s heist caper The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (see trailer above), whose remake is opening in June directed by Tony Scott starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta and James Gandolfini. It does give us at Northwest Film Forum as good an excuse as any to screen the original starring Walter Mathau next week, never mind that the film celebrates this year its 35th anniversary.

Thrillers don’t get much more thrilling than The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Based on a popular but now mostly forgotten novel by John Godey, the film takes a novel situation and presents it with a sense of style and a dash of humor. Naturalistic performances by such actors as Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw only add to the tension. It was nominated for a Writer’s Guild award and has surprised viewers for years who weren’t expecting anything more than a routine crime drama.

Like any good thriller, the story of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is direct and to the point. Four identically clothed men get aboard the subway leaving the Pelham station at 1:23 (thus the film’s title). Soon they’ve taken control of one car with its assortment of riders while demanding that the city of New York give them $1 million or they’ll start killing hostages. Transit officer Walter Matthau must deal with their clever, ruthless leader (Robert Shaw). The hijackers are all named after colors (Mr. Brown, Mr. Green, etc.) which apparently inspired Quentin Tarantino’s similar plot device in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

New York’s Transit Authority initially wouldn’t allow the film to be made on actual subways because of the fear of copycat crimes. Mayor Lindsay got involved and the Authority finally gave permission but still required the studio to buy anti-hijacking insurance though there were never any attempts. The credits have a disclaimer that the Transit Authority didn’t give advice or information for use in the film. (A 1998 TV remake was filmed in a poorly disguised Toronto, which obviously looked quite strange to people familiar with the real NYC subway, we’ll see how the Tony Scott film looks.) One story has it that the film was originally advertised with splashy posters in actual subway stations until riders complained.

When The Taking of Pelham One Two Three appeared, Walter Matthau was in the midst of an action film spree (he’d seen real action during World War II while serving in the Army Air Corps); Matthau played a criminal mastermind in Charley Varrick and a harassed detective in The Laughing Policeman (both 1973), then a drunk at the wrong place at the wrong time in Earthquake (1974). Heart bypass surgery in 1976 probably stopped any further plans for physically demanding action roles. Co-star Robert Shaw (as the devious Mr. Blue) was at the top of his popularity. A former Shakespearean actor, Shaw made an impression in the enormous hit The Sting (1973) and would shortly play the unforgettable Captain Quint in Jaws (1975).

A couple of trivia notes: Making a small appearance in the film as a college student is Lucy Saroyan, daughter of playwright and novelist William Saroyan. Lucy was also Matthau’s stepdaughter since her mother was Matthau’s wife from 1959 to his death. But there’s an even odder connection. Another small part – a receptionist this time – is played by Michelle Matthow. According to Matthau’s son Charles, “Matthow” was Walter’s real last name (the “Matuschanskayasky” that’s sometimes listed in film reference works as the actor’s real last name was actually a Matthau prank that found its way into print). Michelle Matthow’s only other film credit is another Matthau film The Odd Couple II (1998). So are Matthow and Matthau any relation? Turns out that they are: Michelle is Matthau’s niece, the daughter of Matthau’s brother Henry who never changed his name and ran a supply store in Manhattan for 46 years.

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