Thanks to inflation, the demands of Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) seem trivial and insane. One million dollars from the city of New York, and should such a demand not be met, they would kill a train passenger every minute. It reminds me of that gag from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, where Dr. Evil asks for $1 million and is told that that isn’t all that much in the modern economy. Mr. Blue should have aimed for the skies and then shot a bit higher, but he is wiser than Icarus. He is not smarter, though, for his plan of being a cutthroat terrorist implies the cronies he involves himself with cannot be fumbled by George Costanza’s father and one half of The Odd Couple.
What a fantastic pairing Walther Matthau and Jerry Stiller make for, though. Zachary Garber (Matthau) is the dependable lieutenant tasked with taking down Mr. Blue and his gang of nefarious crooks. He is stuck in the operating room for much of the film, conversing with Mr. Blue through the phone. Despite their lack of appearance together, Matthau and Shaw have such incredible chemistry with one another. They can avoid the practical pratfalls of the cat and mouse game by manoeuvring the story to that of tough guys justifying their aims through their own beliefs and morality. They trade blows, not physically, but vocally. Mr. Blue cuts through the reasonable requests Garber makes, and it exasperates the situation rather nicely.
It is necessary to the craft of director Joseph Sargent that these moments do exasperate the situation. While I am not from New York, nor have I ever been, I imagine a train heist is not an everyday occurrence. Garber and Rico Patrone (Stiller) are acting under pressure, and it is surprising how well they are portrayed. They are human, and they make fumbling mistakes in the face of immediate danger. Where cool heads often prevail is the quip movies wish to focus on, but The Taking of Pelham One Two Three offers up the idea that a little bit of desperate panic and the odd double cross make for marvellous moments of realistic mania. Is it more in touch with reality to have Garber and company save the day? Or is it better to show off the human error, and the drawbacks of technology at the time? Phones cutting out, poor timing and honest mistakes pave the way, and it adds to the tension with great, natural effect.
For me, that is where The Taking of Pelham One Two Three hits its stride. Not through the cold and cutting dictation Shaw gives (which is marvellous and comes close to his finest performance) or the great supporting role Martin Balsam offers up, but the conscious decision to include luck and timing into the decision-making process. Many action thrillers have components that fall into place neatly. Everything is tied up by the end. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three has those moments but makes it feel like a natural progression, rather than a desire to have everything tidied up by the end. Sargent’s characters are rooted in the real world. Their problems do not dissipate. “Even great men have to pee,” quips Garber. Not quite the “I’ll be back” of his generation, but one that gives odd depth and pragmatism to his character, and the movie by extension.