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The exact quote escapes me, but James Coburn once said something along the lines of, "When did pictures with action become action pictures?"

With a tsunami of action tent-poles set to withstand this summer's flood of competition, let's spend a few moments recalling a time when the term blockbuster referred to neither a soon-to-be defunct video chain (that initially refused to rent The Last Temptation of Christ!) or two hours of incoherent, hand-held, CGI-driven comic book panels that nowadays pass for storytelling.

Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelman One Two Three made an impact the year it opened. Not only did it take in $16.5 million at the box office, though long since countermanded, for years New York City dispatchers, fearing a copycat incident, saw to it that no trains departed from Pelham station at 1:23 am or pm.

More people are familiar with Tony Scott's Little Engine That Couldn't remake than Sargent's original. Why not call Kensington Video and ask that a copy be put on hold for you. For those who have not seen the film, there are spoilers ahead.

In hindsight, it all seemed so remarkably simple: three respectable looking gents, and Hector Elizondo, hijack a New York city subway train in the middle of the afternoon.

The once high-tech, pre-microchip command center that wowed audiences in 1974 now seems quaint to the point of being comforting. This simple, but highly effective low tech caper is so logical and easily executable that it plays like a blueprint for urban terrorism decades before it became fashionable.

Screenwriter Peter Stone, working from John Godey's novel, doesn't squander the first two reels detailing the caper; the film begins the second the heist goes into play. The star billing hips the audience to the fact that Robert Shaw (Mr. Blue) is our main villain in the piece. Right off the bat, Blue establishes his tough guy chops by staring down a menacing stock '70's street brother who gets in his grill.

He's assembled three colorful strangers, Mr. Brown, Mr. Grey and Mr. Green -- all taken from Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential and borrowed years later for Tarantino's Pulp Fiction -- to execute his rudimentary scheme. Together they plan to extort money from the government by holding hostage the New York City subway system.

The criminals, all wearing similar hats, glasses, and false mustaches, board the train armed and ready. Poised to thwart the attack are a merry band of racist, sexist, and segregationist city workers, led by Lt. Zach Garber (Walter Matthau). In their own ignorant way, the goons on the City payroll are just as intolerant as the hijackers they intend to foil. In some cases they're even less civilized. The erudite, former mercenary, Mr. Blue, passes time waiting for the ransom payment by reading a paperback.

With the exception of some initial comic scenes involving visiting Asian dignitaries, Matthau plays his leading man role with a great degree of physical self-deprecation. The Oscar-winner appears to have no difficulty acting under four pounds of Kiwi Black Hair Dye #17, while his shirt and tie combo -- never to be worn apart let alone together -- induced acid flashbacks.

Using humor and topicality to take the edge off the suspense, the filmmakers cast Ed Koch lookalike Lee Wallace as "The Mayor." Contemporary viewers won't get the joke, but back in '74 audiences howled and jeered in equal doses at the bumbling politico.

The film moves along at a lightning clip. Always a stickler for cheats and misplaced logic, there isn't one implausible step in the picture. Until the end, that is, where it all hinges on a sneeze. As contrived as it is, the gag works because it appears unobtrusively woven into the plot.

This was released at a point in film history when every movie shot on location and under unfiltered light came out bathed in a sickish green tint. The newly developed faster film stocks, which enabled crews to shoot quicker and in practical surroundings, had their drawbacks. Release prints reeked of unstable color retention, that is if you could see past the Frisbee-sized grain. Cool neon location lighting clashed with color sensitive emulsion resulting in dingy frames. It wasn't until the '80's, when film preservationists brought attention to the need to stabilize color negatives, that Eastman Kodak scientist were pressed into developing better film stock.

Known mostly for his work on the small screen, director Joseph Sargent had a few specialty items to his credit before signing on as Pelham conductor. The somewhat prophetic cult film Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) follows the lead set by Kubrick's Hal 2000: a computer with a mind of its own stands ready to topple humankind. Sargent's cool, dispassionate approach -- and the sight of MGM's payroll computer doubling as a movie star -- makes for highly consumable viewing. In light of Obama's time in office it's surprising that Sargent's The Man (1972) has yet to experience even a brief revival. James Earl Jones starred as the first African-American President of the United States.


After Pelham, Sargent directed the big budget flop, MacArthur and had two 35mm tries at turning starlets into stars: Susan Anton in Golden Girl and the dreadful Dyan Cannon, Bobby Blake romcom, Coast to Coast. After Jaws: The Revenge, it was back to the minors. The 84-year-old Sargent, whose last credit was a 2008 TV movie, appears to have retired.

If ever a film was a product of its time and temperament, it's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. No special effects, just honest, straightforward storytelling and compelling physical drama. No wonder Tony Scott's remake -- enhanced by the best computer technicians money can buy -- turned out to be a train wreck.

Reader Rating: Five Stars

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