Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bless Us, Everyone

This post submitted for the Endings Blog-a-thon being hosted at Joe’s Movie Corner.

If you can get past the laughable fashion disasters and casual approach to racism/sexism that were ubiquitous to that decade, 1974's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 , a crime thriller about the hijacking for ransom of a New York subway train, is worth the trip.

Because of the forthcoming Denzel Washington/John Travolta/Tony Scott remake, I'm hesitant to "spoil" the ending. But hey, that's the point of this blog-a-thon, isn't it?

So, here goes:

Tightly directed by Joseph Sargent (based on a John Godey novel), TTOP123 does what Ocean's 11, 12 and 13 haven't been able to do -- successfully combine comedy and drama into a CREDIBLE heist picture.

The film makes good use of it's ensemble cast that includes Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, and a pre-Mr. Costanza Jerry Stiller.

Robert Shaw plays a mercenary who masterminds the subway car kidnapping and enlists three others including a disgruntled former motorman for the New York Transit Authority (Martin Balsam). The manner is which the plot unfolds takes minimal suspension of disbelief to accept.

One interesting story element is the fact that all of the participants in the heist refer to each other by colors (Mr. Blue, Green, Gray, and Brown) instead of names. This certainly must have influenced Quentin Tarantino, a devotee of the 70s genre, for his 1992 film, Reservoir Dogs.

Playing the cops to their robbers, Matthau and Stiller try to foil the heist. I'm not sure how technically accurate the film's rendtion of the New York Transit Authority command center is. But, like the B-52 interiors in Dr. Strangelove, it just feels right.

One of the uncredited characters central to this story is an ailing New York City. Taking place near the nadir of the Big Apple's urban decay, there are five "horsemen" for this apocalypse: politics, corruption, bureaucracy, apathy and greed. These all play a role in complicating things for both the good AND bad guys.

Unlike the depictions of police officers in any Martin Quinn television show from that same era, these cops here aren't running around kicking down doors. Matthau's character isn't quite world weary yet, but he's close. Meanwhile, Stiller seems like he'd rather drink coffee, read his newspaper, and be left alone.

The "Mayor" (Lee Wallace) perfectly symbolizes the malaise of the city. For most of the film, he's wearing pajamas and bedridden due to a bad case of the flu. A similar device is used to represent the impotence of civil authorities in Death Wish (the lead police detective has a constant cold).

When the Mayor does finally decide to pay the ransom, after hemming and hawing for most of the film, it's done more out of a political calculation than compassion for the kidnapped passengers.

The hard boiled attitude of most of others in the Transit Authority control room is perfectly summed up by one of characters who, while griping about how the kidnapping is messing with his route schedule says, "Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents - to live forever?"

Luckily, this institutional breakdown isn't confined to municipal entities. The infrastructure of the criminal element is also undergoing a certain amount of erosion.

As his color, would suggest, Robert Shaw's "Mr. Blue" is an old school mercenary who is cold-blooded and calculating. Career-wise, he's nearer the end of the line than the beginning. In that last respect, he seems to have more in common with Matthau's character than any of his criminal cohorts.

Also on Mr. Blue's crew is a degenerate "mafia" wannabe, Mr. Gray (Hector Elizondo), and Mr. Brown, a stuttering low achiever (Earl Hindman -who'd later achieve fame as Tim Taylor's unseen neighbor in Home Improvement).

Finally, we come to Mr. Green, Martin Balsam. He's the motorman who, in his mind, has been unjustly fired by the Transit Authority. His color aptly describes his lust for money and, perhaps, his envy for those he feels have avoided the persecution he's suffered.

Like the mayor, Mr. Green is afflicted with some sort of cold/flu bug. His sneezing throughout the film is established early on as part of his character development.

During the negotiations, Matthau only converses to the kidnappers via a microphone. He never sees them. On two separate occasions, he says "gesundheit" to Mr. Green who can be heard sneezing in the background.

This sets up what I think is the perfect ending.

After all hell has broken lose underground, the hostages are freed and three of the four hijackers are killed. Mr. Green is able to get back to his shabby, one room apartment and gleefully celebrate his luck by literally rolling around in his newly acquired wealth.

Because it's clear to the cops that someone with an intimate knowledge of how a subway car works was involved, they, in textbook fashion, compile a list of ALL former motormen who may have a grudge with the city.

This ultimately leads to Matthau and Stiller paying Balsam a routine visit. In the book, Mr. Green blows his cover by being seen trying to flee via a fire escape.

However, the movie alters this by working his malady into the finale.

At first, it appears that Mr. Green will talk his way out of being arrested by Matthau and Stiller, who seem somewhat tired and disinterested at this point. But, Mr. Green, who could have let them leave, instead gets greedy for his pound of flesh. He takes time to protest too much at the indignity of being so wrongfully profiled for the crime. At the end of his tirade, Mr. Green sneezes.

Matthau, on his way out the door, says "gesundheit" for the third and final time. Realizing the connection, he comes back in giving the now caught hijacker one of his classic looks.

Fade out to music.

There are many who say that, like a subway car an a LONG stretch of track, they could see this coming from a mile away.

However, it's a "bam" moment for me.

Did I mention the David Shire score? It's perfect too. This YouTube clip of the opening credits captures the feel of the film (I'm almost tempted to include it in the Opening Credits Blog-a-thon for next month).

As I said earlier, TTOP123 is going to be remade for a 2009 release. It's one of those situations where, box office revenues notwithstanding, I can't imagine why.

I don't expect any fresh insights to be discovered in the new outing. And I'll be particularly interested in seeing how they'll adjust the story to handle technological advancements such as cell phones.

I can envision a "Mr. Red" waiting just near the subway entrance feeding information to the hijackers in a manner not possible thirty years ago. Or maybe they'll work around it as did the screenwriters for The Ice Harvest when they had John Cusack break his cell phone in the first scene.

I mainly foresee a Tony Scott directed TTO123 involving gratuitous gun play and explosions.

Oh, I better stop. Now, I'm the one getting sick.


Anonymous said...

Great movie, the music is famous in some hip-hop circles for this amazing Automator remix:

Suprize Packidge (Automator Remix)

GCCR said...

Thanks for the link. At that price (one buck) it may be worth purchasing.

I wonder if they'll sneak it into the upcoming remake (the same way they sneak the famous Spiderman cartoon theme song into the films).