The Journal of Ephemeral Inspiration

The Journal of Ephemeral Inspiration promises a neverending spew of pointless minutae, brilliant yet useless ideas, troublingly cruel commentary and emphatic musings on whatever shiny object happens to catch our collective eye. Always remember, hate the game, not the playa.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Ephemereviews: The Taking Of Pelham 123

Video Format: 2.35:1 Widescreen
Audio Format: Dolby Digital 2.0 (Mono)
DVD Format: SS-SL
Language Tracks: English, French, Spanish
Subtitle Tracks: French, Spanish
Length: 124 minutes
Rating: R
Release Date: May 1, 2001
Packaging: Keep Case
Region Code: 1
Studio: MGM
Catalog Number: 908375

Expectations & Reactions:

In the '70s, the best gritty "cops and robbers" films took place in New York, with the Big Apple at the height of its tough and dangerous reputation. While by no means glamorizing the city, Serpico (1973), The French Connection (1971), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) were powerful films that helped boost a failing economy through filming permits under Mayor John Lindsey's administration (the "I Love New York" campaign had yet to make the scene).

1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three hasn't achieved the iconic status of those pictures (despite a rabid cult following), probably because of its relatively low-key action and unconventional cast. But make no mistake: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three contains a smart and efficient script, effective tension and drama, and colorful performances by a strong ensemble of character actors. Yes, the movie is dated with racial and gender epithets, hopelessly inefficient communications equipment, and horribly wide ties, but all of that is tangent to the main focus of the film: a gripping showdown of nerves and wits between two intelligent actors – stoic and calculating Robert Shaw against laconic and sarcastic Walter Matthau – surrounded by the staggering bureaucracy and profane charm only New York could offer.

The DVD release of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was fairly low key – I doubt anyone who wasn't already a fan was even aware the film was released in the Spring of 2001 (or that it wasn't available before then). MGM is offering this catalog cult favorite in a no-nonsense DVD presentation, with a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer and no special extras beyond a theatrical trailer – is the DVD worth its budget-conscious price?


Four armed men, the commanding Mr. Blue, the sneezing Mr. Green, the violent Mr. Gray and the stuttering Mr. Brown (Tarantino fans, take note of the naming convention), dressed in similar and nondescript disguises, board a New York City IRT subway train (the train that departed from Pelham station in the Bronx at 1:23pm). They quickly and efficiently hijack the first car and its passengers, releasing the remaining cars and riders. The situation gradually reveals itself to the incredulous subway authorities and transit police, and the cold and professional Mr. Blue states his demands: The city is to deliver one million dollars within one hour. The hijackers will execute one hostage for each minute the money is late. As Lt. Garber of the Transit Authority begins the negotiations and battle of wits with Mr. Blue, will the Mayor's office agree to pay? And if so, will the money get there on time? Is there possibly an undercover cop on board? And just how do the hijackers plan to escape?

Look & Listen:

I've never seen The Taking of Pelham One Two Three in a pan and scan format, but I can only imagine how much atmosphere would be lost, and just how claustrophobic the viewing experience would be given that so much of it takes place either in the subway car, in the tunnels, or in the Transit Authority communications center. Preserving the Panavision 2.35:1 widescreen original aspect ratio allows the proper balance and scope of the cinematography, and is reason enough to upgrade from VHS.

Unfortunately, MGM does not present the film in an anamorphic transfer. This is a shame, as an anamorphic transfer would have increased the detail and clarity on 16:9 televisions, but keep in mind that this is a gritty '70s crime drama, and much of the drab look is intentional. Colors were intentionally desaturated and muted (primarily drawing from a spectrum of grays, browns and pale institutional greens – all except for Matthau's blazing yellow tie). Despite the toned-down colors, there is adequate contrast in the picture. There is some grain present, particularly in the plentiful dark tunnel scenes, but it is not excessive or distracting. An anamorphic transfer would have been nice (as Fox's "Five-Star" treatment of The French Connection demonstrates), but the lack thereof doesn't detract from the acceptable presentation.

Flesh tones are very natural looking, and in keeping with the practical fluorescent and subway emergency lighting. Blacks are frequently deep, but not perfect. The documentary-influenced look of the film (as you'd expect with some of the tunnel shots, the foreground is dark and the actors in these scenes are often backlit, appropriately obscuring detail) is part of what creates the kinetic tension, as there is often very little action taking place in the frame.

Dirt and scratches in the source print appear far less than one might expect, and are not distracting. Digitally, MGM has done a good job in presenting a solid transfer – there isn’t any evidence of macroblocking or noise, just minor flaws in the source material. Softening (to reduce grain) and edge-enhancement (to restore crispness to a softened picture) seems minimal, if used at all.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is supported effectively by Dolby 2.0 mono audio, with clear dialogue (important for a talky movie) and a surprisingly satisfying dynamic range in the score. David Shire's ultra-funky twelve-tone compositions are a favorite among soundtrack collectors, and there is ample bass response to support the pounding percussion and growling low brass. The score could have benefited spatially from a stereo mix, but it's largely incidental and mood setting, and never gets in the way of the actors (a release of the complete soundtrack on Retrograde Records notes that the original session tapes are presumed lost, though Shire managed to save scratch reels, some in stereo). It's possible some of the film's atmosphere (ambience in the Transit Authority office, chaos on the subway car, trains panning across the stereo field) could have been enhanced by a two or even five-channel mix, but as some argue early Beatles recordings sound better in their original mono, an overly-active mix isn't really necessary, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three works just fine as is.

Features & Extras:

Well... keep in mind that there are some films we should just be happy to have on DVD. For supplements, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three DVD contains a worn and faded (but very exciting) 2:35:1 theatrical trailer, as well as mono French and Spanish language tracks and captions (no English captions or subtitles are offered). There is a superficially informative booklet that speaks largely to the production logistics, and that's it. Hardly the "Five-Star" treatment The French Connection received, but hey, I'm still thankful it made MGM's release schedule.

Menus & Navigation:

Bare-bones features or not, MGM has created nice static menus consisting of monochrome stills from the film and bold color graphics. A nice but tantalizing touch is a stereo mix of Shire's main theme looped under the main menu (listening to the main menu, particularly with headphones, demonstrates how this great music could have been better). The chapter selection and language screens utilize similarly-themed graphics, but are silent. The film is divided into thirty-two chapters, each featuring a still from the corresponding scene on the chapter selection menus.

Cast & Crew:

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three features a strong ensemble of character actors, most known (or to be known) for other roles, including Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple, 1968), Dick O'Neill (numerous TV and film appearances – you'll recognize him), and Jerry Stiller (Seinfeld) as the good guys, and Robert Shaw (Jaws, 1975), Martin Balsam (Psycho, 1960), Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman, 1990), and Earl Hindman (Home Improvement) as the bad guys.

The film was directed by Joseph Sargent, based on the best-selling novel by John Godey, and features David Shire's funkalicious score.


Action movie fans unfamiliar with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three would do well to try it out – there is an appealing realism that is missing from action thrillers today. The hero cop doesn't have a child or ex-wife on the train to motivate him; he's just doing his job (the most action Matthau sees in this film is a little collar-grabbing and snarling to convince his colleague that the situation is serious). The bad guy has no diabolical grand plan or mad lust to bring the world to its knees; he just wants the cash (a quaint million, split four ways). There are no eye-candy explosions, gratuitous shoot-outs (there's a little gunplay, but it furthers the plot) or final grappling showdown on the roof of the speeding train, just a bad guy with a plan, and a cop who uses his head to try to figure it out.

I'll put it another way: Die Hard (1988) + [Speed (1994) x Money Train (1995)] + Reservior Dogs (1992)Rambo (1985) (or any Steven Segal movie) = The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

For all of the DVD's missed possibilities (an anamorphic transfer, a more meticulous clean-up of the film elements, a 5.1 or at least stereo remix, more robust and informative extras…how about a commentary track from Hector Elizondo and Jerry Stiller?), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a must-have disc for fans of '70s crime dramas and New York films. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three stands up well with its better-known contemporaries, and MGM's widescreen presentation is completely acceptable. Perhaps MGM will revisit the film in the future with some of these enhancements, perhaps not. In the meantime, this is a solid (but not flashy) DVD of a great flick. If you're a fan of the film, you shouldn't pass on this disc.

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