About the time this came out in 1974 I worked for a company that had some installations in New York City, so I was spending some time there. There were movie posters featuring the movie, and it may have been up on one of the theaters in Times Square. I am sure I never saw all of it until this March, when it came available on Amazon Prime Video. It’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, also known as The Taking of Pelham 123. There’s also a book, available in Kindle, but I don’t promise to do a review.
It’s a crime thriller, set in Manhattan, and Pelham 123 is a subway train on the IRT (Interurban Rapid Transit) line. Pelham 123 is the name of the train—final stop Pelham, starting out at 1:23 p.m., hence the title. The movie involves four criminals who hijack the train to extract $1 million dollars ransom from the city. The production company is Palomar Pictures. Details are from Wikipedia.
The opening scene shows Harold Longman a.k.a. Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) getting out of a taxi in mid-town Manhattan and getting on the train. He carries a package. We can guess what’s in the package. Get set for some action.
Others get on the train at different stations, each carrying a package. All are obviously wearing fake mustaches. All are wearing trench coats and hats. The last aboard is Bernard Ryder a.k.a. Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw). He kicks things off by thrusting a gun in the conductor’s face and taking over the train.
An interesting note is that Mr. Green has a bad cold and is always sniffling and sneezing. This is going to prove pivotal.
Walter Matthau is Lt. Zachary Garber of the transit police, who is in the process of escorting some gentlemen from the Tokyo subway system, here to see how the Americans do it. The New York City system is the largest in the world. The meeting with the Japanese executives ends abruptly when it becomes apparent a train has been hijacked.
These are four very desperate men. They want a million dollars within one hour, or they will start killing hostages. The mayor (Lee Wallace) must be brought into the picture, because he has to authorize payment of the money. Although Ed Koch did not become mayor of New York City until four years later, the mayor immediately reminds viewers of Mr. Koch.
There is gripping drama, as the crooks hurl threats and emphasize their demands.
The fire power is impressive. The four carry automatic weapons, and they fire them off when they feel it’s necessary. When negotiations falter, Mr. Blue puts the conductor off the train and shoots him.
Another criminal is Giuseppe Benvenuto a.k.a. Mr. Grey (Héctor Elizondo). He’s a loose cannon, eager to do damage, in need of anger management.
The police figure their only recourse is to pay the million dollars, and scenes show the frantic effort to get the bills counted and packaged as demanded.
Then the bills have to be brought to the 23rd Street station, and wouldn’t you know it, the cop car bringing the loot crashes. Motorcycle cops complete the delivery, and the crooks begin to put into motion their escape plane, which involves setting the train, by now down to a single car, loose heading south while they attempt to sneak topside through an emergency exit to a sidewalk grate.
That’s the point at which everything falls apart for the crooks. Mr. Grey refuses to ditch his weapon as part of the plan for the crooks to blend in with street traffic. Mr. Blue shoots him down on the steps leading to the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, all this time there has been a cop aboard the car in plain clothes, and he has been waiting for a chance to make his move. He guns down George Steever a.k.a. Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman), leaving only two of the original four alive.
Finally the cops have figured out what’s going on, and Garber confronts Mr. Blue in the tunnel. With no escape and no plan B, Mr. Blue takes the easy way out and steps on the line’s third rail. Mr. Green makes his escape, and a subsequent scene shows him rolling in cash on his bed.
To bad for Mr. Green. The cops have figured that one of the crooks must be a cashiered subway employee, because somebody was needed who knew how to operate the train. Garber and another cop go from door to door with a list of ex train drivers and end up knocking on Mr. Green’s door. He hides the cash, and brushes off the cops. As they are about to leave, Mr. Green sneezes. The jig is up.
It’s a tense but uneven plot. Four heavily-armed thugs take of a train and start killing people, demanding a million dollars. And bits of humor are sprinkled here and there.
Viewers’ credulity is stretched in places. The line apparently runs north and south approximately under Park Avenue, terminating at the south end of Manhattan Island. The cops concentrate their efforts on where the train car is and where they suspect the cooks must be. I’ve seen more police presence involved in a police car chase on Los Angeles streets than in this movie. It is never made clear why the cops don’t blanket all exits up and down the line. As it is, they get decoyed away from the 23rd street exit, giving the crooks a way out, although only Mr. Green takes advantage of the opportunity.
The final hunt for the escaped train man is unrealistic and lackadaisical. The most wanted man in the country is loose, and only two cops go door to door looking for him. The Constitution be damned, but any police force in the country would have hauled all suspects down to the station for questioning. Garber and the other cop ask Green a few questions and are satisfied with his answer, “I was here all day,” and they start to leave. Nah!
The cops believe the crooks must still be on the train car, because a dead man switch in the cab would prevent the train from moving without the operator present. And they don’t figure out what every train driver in the country has already figured out, that there is always a way to defeat these safeguards.