“The Taking Of Pelham One, Two, Three” and Martin Balsam: 2013 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon Post #5
This is my fifth and final post for the 2013 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon, and I’d like to thank Jill Blake (Sittin On A Backyard Fence) and Michael Nazarewycz (Scribe Hard On Film) both for doing a great job of hosting it again, and also for letting me participate again.
For many film fans, the early-to-mid 1970’s were a golden age of movies in the U.S. (and worldwide, but that’s another story). As has been written many times, it was a period when a new breed of directors and actors were, if not given carte blanche, at least encouraged in Hollywood. Though there were still movies made during this time that demanded nothing of audiences (Love Story, The Towering Inferno), there were many more that challenged audiences in some way, even in stories that were meant primarily to entertain. As it happens, this period also saw a time of great New York City movies. The rise of location shooting after WWII, as well as a rise of New York City as a film production center, a number of New York-based filmmakers from TV (among them, Mel Brooks and Sidney Lumet) and the stage (Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols), and an independent film movement including such filmmakers as John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke; all of these factors helped lay the groundwork for such directors as Woody Allen (Annie Hall), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) and Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon), as well as such films as the first two Godfather films and The French Connection. To be sure, not every great New York City film of the 70’s came from well-known, or well-regarded, directors. One such example is the original version of The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, directed by Joseph Sargent and starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw and star of the day Martin Balsam.
Based on a novel by John Godey (a pseudonym for Martin Freedgood), adapted by Peter Stone, (who also wrote Charade), the film tells a simple story. Four men, known only as Mr. Blue (Shaw), Mr. Green (Balsam), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) – all disguised with hats, glasses and fake mustaches, and armed with sub-machine guns – take a car on the downtown 6 train (the title of the novel and film refer to the ultimate destination – Pelham Bay Park – and the time it leaves, which is 1:23 pm) hostage. Mr. Blue tells Lt. Zachary Garber (Matthau) of the transit police they want $1 million delivered to them in an hour or they’ll start killing passengers on the train. While Warren LaSalle (Tony Roberts), the deputy mayor, tries to get the mayor (Lee Wallace), who’s sick in bed, to approve the ransom money, and Frank Correll (Dick O’Neill), the manager of the subway supervision center, tries to keep things from getting too fouled up behind the train, Garber tries to stall for time, and also to figure out who the hijackers are and how they plan to escape.
As you might guess from the plot description, one of the strengths of the movie is how it shows even hostage-taking has to go through bureaucracy, and the irritability of New Yorkers. The reaction of everyone, to a man, when Mr. Blue first makes the announcement he’s taken the subway car hostage is the perfect combination of “are you kidding me?” and “would you move the car already?” (when Lt. Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller), also of the transit police, asks Garber what’s going on, Garber tells Patrone he won’t believe it. Patrone: “You know me, I’ll believe anything.” Garber: “A train has been hijacked.” Patrone: “I don’t believe it”). To be sure, while hijackings weren’t unheard of (one character wonders why they didn’t hijack a plane like everyone else), and Rico jokes the hijackers are going to fly the plane to Cuba, to which Garber replies, “You’re a sick man”), hijacking a train seemed outlandish at the time, which also contributes to the way people react. That disbelief and outrage, of course, also gets people killed, as when Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi), who supervises the Grand Central control tower, is outraged enough to go down to the subway car himself, despite repeated warnings from Mr. Grey, who then shoots him dead. But it also means a lot of talking before anything gets done (an exasperated LaSalle tells the mayor at one point, “We’re trying to run a city, not a goddamn democracy!”), and while the movie doesn’t get into this as deeply as the novel does, it also means negotiating through things like getting the money counted and getting through traffic just to get the ransom there on time.
Sargent has done most of his work on TV, and while his work in feature films (except for this one) has been mostly undistinguished (Goldengirl, Jaws: The Revenge), he’s done some fine made-for-TV movies, including The Night That Panicked America (about the reaction to Orson Welles’ infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938), Day One (about the creation of the atomic bomb), and Something the Lord Made (about pioneering heart surgeons). Sargent may not be a visual stylist, but he does keep the action clean and precise, even when there’s shooting, or when the subway car eventually runs out of control (unlike the visual trickery the late Tony Scott indulged in with his 2009 remake). What that also means, unfortunately, is certain things are over-explained to us. In the novel, we learn the backgrounds of each hijacker in what amounts to short flashbacks – Mr. Blue, alias Bernard Grier (changed from Ryder in the novel), is a former mercenary, Mr. Green, alias Harold Longman, is a former subway motorman (fired for being accused of being involved in drugs), Mr. Grey, alias Giuseppe, used to work for the mob (though, in the novel at least, it turns out he exaggerated his importance to them), and Mr. Brown, alias George Steever, a professional armed robber (unlike Giuseppe, he follows orders). In a movie as tightly plotted as this one, flashbacks would take up too much time, but what results is characters telling each other things they should already know, as when Mr. Blue talks to Mr. Green about his former mercenary days (better is when Mr. Green starts to tell the motorman they’ve taken hostage about the times he was written up when Mr. Blue says, “That’s right, Mr. Green, tell Mr. Doyle all about yourself, would you?”)
While Sargent and Stone make other minor changes in this adaptation – in the novel, some of the hostages, including the undercover police detective, are individual characters, but they’re just barely sketched out in the film; also, the patrol officer who’s keeping an eye on things shoots Steever in the novel, but in the movie, it’s one of the unseen police snipers – the biggest change is the main character. Garber is in the novel, but only as a background character, with Lieutenant Clive Prescott (also of the transit police) being the main policeman dealing with the hijackers (Prescott’s character is African-American). Not only is Prescott completely dropped, but in replacing him, Garber is put into situations that, in the novel, he wasn’t anywhere near, such as going down himself to stop the hijackers from getting away, as well as, with Lt. Petrone, trying to track down the one hijacker who escape (they’re able to figure out it was a former subway motorman). Yes, the transit police was much more active back then, but you’d figure this would be a job for detectives, not the bosses, and this seems just like a way to give everything to the star.
Still, it’s hard to complain when you have someone like Matthau in the role. Though Matthau is still best known today for his comic roles (and his sole Oscar, for The Fortune Cookie, was for a comic role), he was often cast in other types of roles because his size (he was 6’3”), craggy face, slouched posture (which was partly due to back injuries he suffered from during WWII), and above all, a voice that could convey dry wit (supposedly, even close friends had a difficult time telling whether he was trying to be funny or not) and menace, sometimes at the same time. For a brief run in the mid-70’s, he even starred in a trio of action movies, of which Pelham was the last (he played a bank robber who inadvertently robs the Mafia in Charley Varrick, and a police detective trying to avenge his partner’s murder in The Laughing Policeman), and he might have done more had he not been forced to take it easier after having heart bypass surgery in 1976. In addition to having to deal with the hijackers, Garber has to put up with co-workers like Correll, who thinks it’s unseemly for Garber to even be negotiating with the hijackers. As Pauline Kael points out in her otherwise disparaging review, Matthau manages to deal with all of the turmoil around him by underplaying, but he also uses his physical presence, as when he strong-arms Correll when he thinks Correll has gone too far. Garber’s part might have been built up to make it the star part, but Matthau plays it as if it were a character part of just an ordinary guy, and that’s what makes his performance work so well.
That “ordinary” quality also extends to the villains. If the bad guy role Shaw plays here doesn’t have the dimension, say, of other big-budget movie roles he appeared in such as gangster Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting, grizzled shark hunter Quint in Jaws, or Mossad agent David Kabakov in Black Sunday, Shaw at least doesn’t play Mr. Blue as an evil mastermind (as John Travolta played him in the 2009 remake), but as an ordinary criminal. $1 million was a much bigger deal back then (the remake up the price to $10 million), but the movie again makes it seem more just a retirement score than something a “mastermind” would come up with. Elizondo (miles away from the persona he’d develop in Garry Marshall films) and Hindman (who also appeared that year in The Parallax View, and is best remembered today for his stint on Home Improvement) likewise are able to look like ordinary guys doing a job (and the delusions of grandeur Mr. Grey has are in character). And that’s especially true of Mr. Green, as played by Balsam.
Of course, over the course of his long career, Balsam specialized in playing ordinary guys, and with performances that, for the most part, didn’t call attention to themselves. Those performances include the jury foreman in 12 Angry Men, the private detective in Psycho, the police chief in the original version of Cape Fear, the President’s (Frederic March) chief of staff in Seven Days in May, the stagecoach driver in Hombre, and Howard Simons, managing editor of the Washington Post, in All the President’s Men. Of course, he could also go over-the-top when necessary, as with Jason Robards’ exasperated brother in A Thousand Clowns (for which Balsam won his only Oscar), the con man in Little Big Man, and the flamboyantly gay antiques dealer turned thief in The Anderson Tapes. Still, it’s the more restrained roles that Balsam excelled at. Mr. Green, or Longman, is involved in the heist to get even for being screwed over, and he clearly knows the ins and outs of subways (which is what enables them to come up with their escape plan), but he’s clearly uncomfortable with the more violent aspects Mr. Blue feels are necessary (to say nothing of Mr. Grey’s psychopathic tendencies). He’s also sickly, which was also added for the movie, but which sets up a great closing gag (which I won’t reveal). It’s to the credit of Balsam’s performance that he embraces how ordinary Mr. Green is. It’s also to Sargent and Stone’s credit, and part of why The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three is a great New York City movie, a great 70’s movie, and a great movie, period.