"How come that gate ain't locked?"
"Who's going to steal a subway train?"
It's a typical day in New York City. A delegation from the Tokyo subway system is touring Transit Authority headquarters. The mayor, down 22 points in the polls, is in bed with the flu.
Meanwhile, the downtown Lexington Avenue local subway train that left Pelham Bay Parkway at 1:23 P.M. has been boarded by four mustachioed men wearing glasses, hats, and reversible overcoats and carrying parcels. At 28th Street, they fairly quietly reveal themselves to the motorman and to the trainee conductor to be heavily armed and take over the train. Eventually, they separate the first car and its passengers from the rest of the train, and contact the transit authority by radio with their simple demand: $1 million, delivered to them in an hour, or they will start killing one of the 18 hostages every minute.
This 1974 film, based on the novel of the same name by John Godey, has all the requisite elements of a thriller of this type: the race against time, the bad guys arguing among themselves, frightened people screaming, fast cars, guns, and a sprinkling of humor.
What sets it apart, first of all, is its cast. The good guys are headed by Walter Matthau, as Lieutenant Zachary "Z" Garber of the transit police, and Jerry Stiller in one of his rare dramatic roles as Lieutenant Rico Patrone. They have to contend not only with the hijackers, but also with Dick O'Neill as Frank Correll of the transit authority, who would just as soon get the hijackers and the hostages out of the way in order to get his "railroad" back on schedule.
The four hijackers (whose fake names were Quentin Tarantino's inspiration for the character names in "Reservoir Dogs") are Robert Shaw as the leader Mr. Blue, Martin Balsam as Mr. Green, who has both technical know-how and a grudge against the transit authority, Hector Elizondo as Mr. Grey, who has both a temper and an eye for the ladies, and Earl Hindman as Mr. Brown.
Secondly, this is one of the most realistic train movies ever made (ignoring one line of dialogue claiming that IRT subway cars are 21 feet longer than they really are). Even the locations that were faked, such as the control tower, are fairly authentic; all of the subway scenes, though, really were shot on the New York City subway system, both under Lexington Avenue and in the tunnel leading to what is now the New York City Transit Museum in Brooklyn.
It is so realistic, in fact, that not only did the real New York City Transit Authority coerce the producers into inserting a disclaimer in the closing credits basically saying that the filmmakers were going out on their own while the transit authority had no idea what was going on, but the producers paid the premium for an anti-hijacking insurance policy in case anyone decided to imitate the movie.
"Screw the passengers. What do they expect for their lousy 35 cents--to live forever?"
Note: For no good reason, "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" was remade as a TV movie in 1998, starring Edward James Olmos and filmed in Toronto. Do not confuse this version with the original.