Music hits the throttle of one of the great New York City thrillers

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Mike D'Angelo
·3 min read
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Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the release of Gia Coppola’s new movie, Mainstream, we’re highlighting other work from the extended Coppola family.


The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Before the first image appears, the music starts: martial drums beneath a driving bassline punctuated by low, staccato horns. The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’s opening credit sequence couldn’t be more basic—just white letters on a black screen (though the names are in a stencil-based font that registers as gritty)—but, then, there’s no need for visual panache just yet. That score is doing all of the necessary work. David Shire was fresh off making his first real splash as a composer with The Conversation, directed by his brother-in-law (he was married to Talia at the time), when he was tasked with setting an urgent, exciting tone for what would turn out to be the quintessential ’70s NYC thriller. He did not shirk: As the rhythm section pounds and lopes on, additional horns come in, higher and more insistent; they grow almost but not quite discordant, as if threatening to go full bebop. Only the deaf or dead could fail to feel their pulse elevate. It’s all but impossible to watch Pelham’s first 90 seconds and not think, “Oh, man, this is gonna be awesome.

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Fortunately, the movie delivers. Adapted from a best-selling novel by John Godey (the pen name of Morton Freedgood), it depicts, nearly in real time, the hijacking of a New York subway train by four identically disguised and heavily armed men (Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Earl Hindman) who refer to each other using color-based code names: Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, etc. (Somewhere in Los Angeles, nearly 20 years later, a video store employee named Quentin was taking notes.) As the transit cop in charge of the hostage negotiations, Walter Matthau tones down his patented sardonicism in favor of an immensely appealing rumpled professionalism—a bold move, considering that he’s constantly in danger of being upstaged by his blinding yellow necktie. The hijackers demand [Dr. Evil voice] one million dollars in cash, with Shaw’s no-nonsense leader warning that he’ll kill one hostage for each minute that the payment is late. While Gotham’s feckless mayor (Lee Wallace) eventually agrees to pay, the real question is how the hijackers plan to escape with the loot, given that they’re trapped in an underground tunnel.

To his credit, director Joseph Sargent uses Shire’s score judiciously, allowing most of the film to unfold in silence—or, rather, in New York’s standard cacophony of profane chatter and incidental street noise. Music reappears only when needed, accompanying a montage of city workers frantically counting $50 and $100 bills while trying to meet the hijackers’ insane deadline (one hour, not a minute more), reaching peak atonality when the train car, still full of hostages, speeds driverless toward an apparent high impact. Still, even when it’s absent, the muscular promise of that opening theme reverberates. (Pity poor Harry Gregson-Williams, who scored the terrible 2009 remake and struggled to come up with a late-aughts equivalent, settling on discount Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross.) Anyone who’s seen the original Pelham will never forget its unexpectedly hilarious ending, with Matthau sporting a facial expression that perhaps only he could produce. Shire’s staccato horns kick in again over the image as it slowly fades to black, and what had previously sounded intense suddenly comes across like a mordant joke. That’s versatility.

Availability: The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is available for digital rental or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Redbox, AMC On Demand, and VUDU.