The NYC subways are still frustrating. There are delays due to construction, signal malfunctions, sick passengers, police activity etc etc. One friend (who’s lived here longer than me) hears “this train is being momentarily held in the station by the dispatcher” and insists there’s no central dispatcher behind the (at times) seemingly random service. But he’s never seen The Taking of Pelham 123. Walter Matthau plays the train dispatcher who cooly and calmly negotiates a safe outcome when a ruthless and well-organized gang of four hijack a subway train on the Lexington Avenue 6 line. Forget the remake: the 1974 original captures all the dread and danger of daily underground commuting during the dirty decade in New York City. Even in 1981, when I arrived, the subways were still limping along, covered with graffiti inside and out, prone to break down at the slightest provocation. Beggars, assorted crazies and gangs of rowdy teenagers patrolled the cars, intimidating passengers at will. I once looked up from my book and saw a man flashing a smile at me – with a razor blade between his teeth. Another time the train halted between stations, and stayed there. Eventually we were led off the train by flashlight-toting MTA employees and walked along the rat-infested tracks, avoiding the third rail, until we reached the nearest stairway.
So the idea of a train being hijacked wasn’t exactly far-fetched. The Taking of Pelham 123 is a taut thriller with convincing low-key performances from Matthau and familiar 70s faces Robert Shaw (as the gang leader), Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and James Broderick. Fans of Quentin Tarantino will spot strong similarities with Reservoir Dogs. What really makes the movie, apart from the action and suspense, is characterization. As Roger Ebert put it at the time of release: “These aren’t machine-made characters, but individuals and more specifically, New Yorkers with gallows humor, paranoia, warmth and residence.” Those traits are still in abundance among New Yorkers today, even if the subway isn’t as filthy and threatening. Oh, and the hapless mayor in Pelham totally resembles Ed Koch though it was a few years before his election. Prescient.