Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974, Joseph Sargent)

(Originally posted on 12 October 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.)

Since it was first announced, I've been against the idea of remaking Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and nothing I've heard since its release has changed my opinion. But at a time when even the most revered genre films get remade (e.g. Halloween), why fret about this one, especially when it’s already been remade for television? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it has something to do with the stripped-down style of the film, which never calls attention to itself. Sargent, a Hollywood veteran who worked mostly in television, foregoes flash for detail, portraying the subway hijacking more or less realistically, with an invaluable assist from the New York City Transit Authority.

Then there’s the cast. Today, the only leading roles available in Hollywood for men who look like Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam would be in lowbrow comedies with the word "grumpy" in the title. But these actors were perfectly suited to the style of the film, playing not hotshot heroes and villains, but men doing a job primarily for the money. Given the usual visual pyrotechnics of remake director Tony Scott and the leading-man appeal of his star, Denzel Washington, it appears that the only thing left over from the original film is the subway hijacking. If that’s all that’s left, you might as well be remaking Money Train.

And no matter how good the remake is, it would be hard to come up with an ending that works even half as well as the original. After his partners-in-crime have been killed, Balsam’s disgraced ex-subway engineer takes his share of the loot back to his apartment, and Matthau and his fellow transit cops set about finding him by questioning former transit employees in the area. After a few false leads, Matthau and his boss (played by Jerry Stiller) drop in on Balsam, who appears nervous as the transit cops question him. After they look around the apartment, Matthau and Stiller start to leave the apartment, on their way to interview the next possible suspect.

Then Balsam sneezes.

Earlier in the film, when the hijackers called in their demands to the Transit Authority, Balsam could be heard sneezing twice in the background, to which Matthau absentmindedly would always respond "gesundheit." Now that same sneeze, which Matthau thought almost nothing of before, gives away Balsam’s identity.

It’s also just a good bit of suspense, with Balsam (the most sympathetic of the hijackers) worrying that the transit cops will find his money hidden in his oven or see through his alibi. In addition, there’s the way the scene ends the film long before we expect it to. In most films, Matthau would question all of the suspects on his list, go back to the station and hash out his clues. Here, it’s one sneeze and it’s over.

But most of all, it’s that final shot that makes the scene great. Who else could have sold that closeup like Matthau did?

"Gesundheit." Gotcha.

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