The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)
Written by Peter Stone
Directed by Joseph Sargent
Despite the bemoaning of “high crime” in contemporary America, it’s nowhere near the epidemic levels it reached in the 1970s. New York City was one of the most significant crime outliers during that period. In 1974, NYC saw 145,000+ violent crimes, including almost 2,000 murders and over 5,000 rapes. Over 100,000 cars were stolen in the city during that year. Jump to 2019, where there were 69,000 violent crimes. Only 558 of those were murders. Rape, however, has increased to over 6,000. Car thefts dropped to over 12,000 in that year. (Source). It’s clear that, in most cases, crime is down. That rape number is alarming, though, and I wonder from a sociological perspective how it is explained. I have ideas related to a rise in right-wing reactionary misogyny, but I would like to learn more. The Taking of Pelham 123 was part of a wave of films about crime in NYC in the 1970s, a social catastrophe that had to be addressed across politics, art, and every medium.
New York City’s subway system is humming along like usual on a weekday. People shuffle in and out of trains to work, home, or shopping. A group of men using color code names board the Pelham 123 at different stations and then take control of the cars. Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) is in charge and uses the knowledge of former transit employee Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) to stop the train cars and dislodge all but the lead one. They contact NYC Transit Police over the radio and list their demands. The crew wants a $1 million ransom in one hour, or they will begin killing a passenger every minute the money is late. Lt. Zach Garber (Walter Matthau) knows it’s up to him to coordinate his transit police and the NYPD to get this money to the criminals in time. However, unexpected complications arise, making the ticking clock ever louder with every second.
Taking is a perfect example of economical filmmaking. There is no time spent on unimportant backstories; we meet our characters in the context of the plot. It’s never clear who Garber is outside of his job, we meet him as the boss, and that’s who he is for the entirety of the film. As with most of director Joseph Sargent’s work, he was very bare-bones and didn’t explore themes in much depth outside of the immediate narrative. The same can be said for screenwriter Peter Stone’s scripts (Charade, Father Goose). Everything is clear-cut, so any analysis has to happen on the part of the audience, not the filmmakers. In many ways, this is a bridge between the classical style of Hollywood filmmaking and the New Hollywood model of the 1970s: A straightforward story but accented with context clues that something larger was happening in the society.
The most fascinating character, in my opinion, is Mr. Blue, the head of this quartet of criminals. The audience will eventually learn he’s Bernard Ryder, a former British Army Colonel who became a mercenary in Africa. We’re never entirely sure how this crew came to be, but we can assume they met in prison or after getting out. Blue is a rotten man, down to his core. He sees no value in human life but is also calculating. He’s not going to run in shooting; he’ll figure out the angles and force his opponent’s hand. Mr. Green, on the other hand, is, as his name implies, he’s not confident in this criminal activity. Green got involved in the drug trade and was arrested in a bust; upon release, he had trouble getting a job of any means. We learn he operates an airport forklift and leaves in a hole of an apartment. One is utterly unsympathetic, while the other will likely elicit empathy from the audience. Green doesn’t want to kill anyone, but he has gone all-in with this crew. Society seems not to have a way to reintegrate these people, leading to the revolving door of crime.
Beyond that, we get glimpses of the infrastructure that runs the city. Even for 1974, this doesn’t seem state of the art. This period of New York’s history saw massive suburban flight and a drop in manufacturing jobs. In many ways, NYC at this time was a bellwether for the coming industrial collapse of the rest of the United States. The city budget became like many working-class and poor people now and then, living paycheck to paycheck. When that happens on a citywide systemic scale, it means complete devastation for a population. The sentiments of NYC residents are presented through the exchanges of the mayor and his deputy mayor(Lee Wallace & Tony Roberts, respectively) in the film. The public hates this mayor as he cringes at the idea of making a public statement about the subway crisis, anticipating jeers and boos from the crowd. I found this portion of the film very interesting because it’s the one place the story diverges from the beat-by-beat plot. These are comedic asides that show how the city approves that the money is handed over. These segments capture the brooding sentiments of New Yorkers at the time. There was doom in the air, and it would get increasingly worse in the years to come before it got better.
The final confrontation between Garber and Blue is another telling moment. There are mentions of Attica by the authorities mid-way through the movie, implying they want to avoid the massacre at that prison. When our two leads face off in the tunnels, Blue being held at gunpoint by Garber, the criminal inquires if New York state still issues the death penalty. The last execution in NY state occurred in 1963. The death penalty was reinstated in 1995 by Governor Pataki, limited to lethal injection. Thankfully, no governor has had the gall to use it yet. Blue’s inquiry is followed by placing his foot against the third rail and electrocuting himself to death. This has to be one of the most dramatic antagonist deaths I’ve seen in a while, pointing to something more significant. For Blue, returning to the squalor of prison was simply something he would never do. This heist would either work, or he was going to kill himself. While Garber shows a bit of shock, I think most audiences will be stunned by this moment.
The Taking of Pelham 123 feels like a slice out of time; a peek into the mood of New York City on the eve of its darkest era. Crime was ticking up, and city leaders seemed feckless, kept under the thumb of banks and corporate interests. The MTA insisted that the trains be presented as clean and free of graffiti, something director Sargent joked would lead to peals of laughter in theaters. Despite the desire to showcase a facade, the filmmakers are able to break through that. Little about the film feels romanticized; it’s rooted in the day-to-day actions of labor and how the systems meant to protect people had crumbled.