Gritty New York City 70s films hold a special place in my heart because my father took me to the theater to see them when I was very, maybe too, young. He had a great way of asking what movie you wanted to see, and then when you picked something age-appropriate like Herbie The Love Bug, he would just say, “No. We’re going to see this.” And off to The Seven Ups or The Laughing Policeman you went. I suspect he just went through the motions of giving you a choice hoping he could get a twofer, seeing a movie he wanted to see and having you actually hit upon the same thing.
If nothing good was out, we watched a lot of these pictures at his apartment, sharing a bowl of candy corn.
I was never very disappointed to have a Disney film vetoed by my Dad. I was nine or ten years old and I was drinking in the likes of Serpico, Death Wish, and The French Connection, which introduced me to the hellscape of New York City, so different from my own suburban enclave. Throw in some other New York City pictures that offered more complicated themes, like Klute, and the Big Apple seemed even more foreign and forbidding.
The experience could be disorienting. After all, I was watching Jane Fonda fake an orgasm but didn’t know what a call girl was or what exactly she was faking. But it was such a rush and a privilege, something we shared that really wasn’t transferable to anybody else. I mean, I couldn’t really tell kids in my fifth grade class about Dog Day Afternoon.
For me, the best and most accessible of these pictures was The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I think my father agreed. From the beginning notes, a frenetic, jazzy David Shire score, the city translates musically as a haphazard mess of a place where anything can happen. In the space of 15 minutes, you’re introduced to four hijackers of, of all things, a New York City subway train, their hostages, and every sort of New York City bureaucrat, from the mayor all the way down to the weathered Transit Authority Inspector Garber (Walter Matthau). To a person, every politician, cop, administrator, dispatcher, and train driver is cynical, a little bit “Not my department” lazy, obnoxious, and yet, grudgingly heroic in their ability to work in such a fucked up place. They constantly deride, yell at, and ride each other, but there is a fundamental professionalism in their banter, and when they are put to the test by an exacting master criminal with a plan (Robert Shaw), there is something noble about their efforts. Unlike the feeble and mincing bureaucrats of Dirty Harry’s San Francisco, these folks are simply too harried and put-upon to bother with any kind of agenda, be it liberal, conservative, or something in between. They’re just working stiffs doing the best they can and to a character, they are shockingly well fleshed out even with little dialogue. Add an entire subway car filled with all the denizens of New York City – the pimp, the prostitute, an old Jewish man, non-English speaking immigrants, a mother and her two bratty boys, early feminists, a drunk, a hippie – and the picture becomes a model in drawing characters both strongly and economically.
An example: Shaw has asked for $1 million to be assembled in 60 minutes. He tells Matthau that for every minute he is late with the dough, he’ll kill a hostage. You watch the entire city machinery lurch into action to meet the deadline, including two cops who are tasked with driving the money from the bank to the subway station. They are given a few lines as they wait for the payoff funds, and yet, I became so interested in them, when they crashed their police car trying to make time, I fretted about their fate even though the story couldn’t allow for any resolution.
And as a caper film, you’re not gonna get much better than this. I remember gripping my seat, but I can’t remember whether we were in the theater or at home on the couch. Joseph Sargent, a workmanlike director who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, keeps everything moving while the picture remains funny yet taut, and then dizzying, almost as if patterned on the runaway subway train that closes the film. When you get comfortable, he snaps you back to attention with shocking violence and the expressed terror of the hostages.
Opening credits here, featuring Shire’s unforgettable, commanding soundtrack.
Currently on Showtime. And if you’re seeing Denzel Washington and John Travolta, you’re watching the godawful remake. Bail out.