Thursday, February 26, 2009


Folks that spend too much time watching and thinking about movies are often the first to complain (well, more like moan) 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 (which is not necessarily new and has in fact been going on since the early 'silent' period when filmmaking was still new) 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 fogotten by the culture at large.  Case in point:  Joseph Sargent's heist caper The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three.  It is due in 2009 for a big budget hollywood remake with Tony Scott directing and Denzel Washington, John Travolta and James Gandolfini (and glossy lit big effects and stunts).  

But let us consider the 1974 original film (itself based on a popular pulp novel at the time).  Four men in costumes with colours for names (Mr. Blue, Mr. Grey, Mr. Green, etc.) walk into the New York Subway system and hijack a train, all to place some pretty big ransom demands on the transit authority and the city and walk out with some big time moohah.  But the question remains as the movie plays:  How will they get out of this situation?  Is there something larger at stake going on?  If this sounds familiar to you reading this, it is because Quentin Tarantino borrowed the Colour names for his debut picture, 1991's Reservoir Dogs and John McTiernan borrowed the set-up and overall style for his 1988 mega-blockbuster Die Hard.  Despite Pelham's popularity at the time and the influence it had on other films, the film has not been given the status of 'classic' crime pictures like The French Connection or Dog Day Afternoon (the latter came out one year after Pelham).  Modern pictures like Spike Lee's wonderfully entertaining The Inside Man, or Bill Murray's comic Quick Change are still plucking tidbits from this classic heist/ransom flick.

Perhaps it was the casting of Walter Matthau in the lead that made this one mainly disappear into the ether.  Hardly the testosterone powder keg of Al Pacino, or the sly manliness of Bruce Willis, yet Matthau imbues Pelham with a  wry wit, a self-deprecating competence, and yet after 35 years of hindsight, he is the gruffy, scruffy reason why the film has aged exceedingly well despite the slew of people who went with its newly found formula.  The no-nonsense storytelling (clues and hints are seemlessly integrated without being overbearing) with a realistic on-location subway shoot and authentic sounding dialogue should be a lesson in how many things have changed from the 1970s to he 2000s.  It is an interesting window people talked and how 'blockbuster' movies when that term meant something quite different:  No special effects, solid character acting, good dialogue, fun storytelling and as a bonus - one kick ass theme song.  And it is a damn good time at the movies.


Blogger Shelagh said...

I came across this movie on IFC about a year ago, and loved it. Walter Matthau was perfect for the character, since that's what you'd expect someone in that job to be like. It also worked in the day because of the available technology and the information the transit authorities could get or not get. I don't see how this is going to transfer to today. I can't see Denzel Washington in the part, and was not impressed with the trailer. The original still stands today.

1:24 p.m.  
Anonymous DukeKona said...

Agreed. Inside Man was the real re-make of 123, as I think Spike would happily admit.

3:10 p.m.  

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