Movies I Want Everyone to See: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

[Originally Published on Fogs Movie Reviews Fall of 2013] [Re-Published now in conjunction with the 2018 TCM Film Festival]

I recently spent the weekend with some friends and a guy I know well, and have been friends with for more than thirty five years, had the audacity to suggest that the remake of this film was more entertaining than the original. I instantly dropped my jaw, exclaimed loudly that he had to be kidding and then proceeded to disagree in a condescending manner. I have to apologize for the tone, it was not called for and I would not want my friend to be angry at me because I mocked his preference for the 2009 version. I do want him to know and understand that although I liked the Denzel/Travolta film, it can’t really hold a candle to the original and that vigorous defense of the 1974 classic  begins now as I once more recommend a movie that I want everyone to see.

The nineteen seventies were the last golden age of movie making. There have been plenty of great movies since then, and there have even been periods of time when a film making movement has taken center stage. Yet pound for pound the period of time when the studios were still controlled by film makers and not corporate conglomerates, remains the longest sustained period of film making excellence since the 30s. The mavericks that ran the studios lead by the seat of their pants, and their taste in films. When they succeeded, like Robert Evans did at Paramount, the atmosphere was invigorating. After “Heaven’s Gate” and the fall of United Artists, the movie business changed. Not always in negative ways but it was very different. “The Taking of Pelham 123” is one of those films that represent a gritty view of the world, with cynicism that reflected the time and place and was not simply a joke or a stylistic flourish. It’s not the kind of film that would have appealed to a modern studio as much. Maybe the indie world would be able to put something like this on the screen these days but it would not have had the cache of this version. The remake exists because there is already a story, and a success that the marketers can shoehorn into their philosophy. The remake is a casting gimmick, it worked but only because the groundwork had been laid out by the original.

MatthauThis is a crime film where the crime involves holding hostages for ransom. The conceit is that the location of the kidnapping is a moving target underground. The set up of the movie familiarizes us with a variety of characters, most of whom are working stiffs in the NY Transit System. Walter Matthau, who made his daily bread playing cynical types, is the worn down head of the transit police in charge of one section of the subway system. Lt. Garber, mouths off at his co-workers, dutifully provides a tour to visiting transit dignitaries and generally growls his way through another work day. The re-make casts Denzel as as a dispatcher rather than a cop. OK that might work, except it the remake then  gives him a back story and a plot line that have nothing to do with the main event. The goal is to layer the character and make the plot deeper. In my view it comes off as uncertainty as to how to make the plot as tense as possible. They resort to tricks to build empathy for Garber.  Matthau’s cop version is just doing his job. He is good at it and he struggles with the crisis he is faced with but our rooting interest is in the events not the man. Denzel is given multiple crisis to deal with and his willingness to do the job is undermined by the suspicion around him because of a separate story that is not really the focus of the film.

As a great illustration of the urban grittiness found in the original, take a listen to this terrific main theme that muscles the story onto the screen and tells you this is a film about tough men and dangerous situations, and manages to do so without resorting to theatrics.

I don’t remember the score from the remake, but I do remember the over the top “bad guy” played by John Travolta. Dark glasses, close cropped hair, Fu Manchu mustache and tattoos galore are all trademarks of movie bad guys in the last twenty years. All the gang in the original had fake mustaches but they wore them as a cover not as an attempt to intimidate. Even though there is not any back story or character costuming, the four hijackers in the 1974 film all had distinct personalities and they were easy to remember by their colorful sobriquets.  I am pretty sure this is where Tarantino cribbed the idea for naming his characters in “Reservoir Dogs”.

Robert-Shaw-as-Mr-Blue-600x255The ultimate measure of any story like this is the villain, and while Travolta was scary and played the part as was written, his character is not as interesting or unnerving as Robert Shaw’s Mr. Blue. While we ultimately hear a little bit more about his background, the truth is none of it matters because we know from the beginning that he is a ruthless professional. The look in his eye and the demeanor he conveys is all we need to know he is an alpha. Shaw never screams or shouts. Mr. Blue’s cool voice and nearly expressionless face tells every passenger on that train that he is not a man to be f***ed with. The next year after this, Shaw did “Jaws” which was a performance that draws attention to the characters idiosyncrasies.  Except for his intolerance of the psycho Mr. Grey, we see little of his motivation or internal processes. Shaw underplays every scene and the dialogue with Matthau on the radio is deadly earnest. He never compromises. The one time his timetable is adjusted has nothing to do with negotiating but everything to do with the situation, he still is in charge.

The way the hijackers maintain their control of the situation is by following Mr. Blue’s lead. He guns down a hostage in cold blood and he doesn’t accept the improvisation of his reckless ex mafia colleague. When he speaks to the passengers there is no mock sympathy or reassurance. He simply speaks directly and he acts as he has promised to.

Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, menacing Matthew Broderick's Dad.

Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, menacing Matthew Broderick’s Dad.

The supporting players are a combination of believable types and loathsome stereotypes. Most of the employees of the N.Y. Transit system come off as they are supposed to, harried professionals who view these events from the point of view of a bureaucrat rather than an average citizen. Ben Stiller’s Dad shows up, not cracking wise so much as he is humorously supporting Garber as his partner in the Transit police. Veteran TV character actor Dick O’Neil plays the intolerant train schedule manager who can’t be bothered to worry about dead customers when the trains are getting off schedule. He asks at one point what the customers want for their  lousy 35 cents, to live forever? This is the kind of casual negativity that pushes Garber into one of his few outward displays of frustration.  We get a chance to see the craven actions of political figures as they calculate the costs of paying a ransom. A calculation that has more to do with the next election than saving the lives of the hostages.  We never get to know much about the captives, they are stereotypes; old man, panicked mother, hooker etc. This is not a story of the lives of the victims of this crime or the perpetrators or the cops. The story focuses on the events of the crime.

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The New York subway system seems familiar because we’ve seen it in a hundred movies. Overcrowded, not quite clean, sometimes antiquated and claustrophobic.   The film manages to convey all of that without dwelling on any of it. The darkness surrounding the train car becomes the background for some good tense scenes. One cop even jokes that because of his color he wants everyone to be aware that he is between the SWAT team and the criminals. There is a very morbid sense that everyone in those tunnels is just another rat in a hole and they all have to fend for themselves. While there are nihilistic films out there today, it is hard to see a major studio building a film around that sort of attitude. The characters would have to be sympathetic and the bureaucracy would be the focus of anger rather than the kidnappers. The cops at the surface have many of the same attitudes that we might see fifteen years later in “Die Hard”.  They are ready to shoot first and ask questions later. They are not always competent, witness the car crash that delays delivery of the money, but they don’t play most of this for laughs. The police in authority are not figures to be mocked like Dwayne Robinson, they are also working professionals that are worn from the job but shrug their shoulders and do it anyway. This whole film is very much a blue collar thriller. The bad guys are a team of desperate men not an army of tactically trained experts. The Transit employees are real people in a tough thankless job that have become jaded. The cops are overwhelmed and smart but not brilliant. The only pure comic personae is the Mayor with the flu.

The remake is filled with visual twists and plot developments to astound us. This movie is not filled with fireworks but it manages to hold our attention and be entertaining. The plot scenario might sound farfetched but set in the days of D.B. Cooper and hijacking of planes to Cuba it feels real. The city, the subway the  passengers, the crooks and the cops all come across as real people. This is not a spy adventure or an action film with a hero who overcomes incredible odds. It is an urban thriller that  makes it’s story feel like it could happen and characters that might really exist. The final clue that nails the hijacker that gets away is even more fun now a days when we see so many stories about stupid criminals. Even though the denouncement is played for a laugh, it also feels authentic.

Taking 3

I’m sure most of the readers of this site have probably watched this film a time or two. Fogs gave me a term in a on-line post that I now use regularly. This is a “Black Hole” film. It’s gravitational pull for me is overwhelming, and every time I encounter it I lose another 104 minutes of my life but I gain a 104 minutes of time with story tellers who know what the hell they were doing.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

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Movies I Want Everyone to See: The Court Jester 1955

Time marches on and history sometimes fades into vague memory and then is forgotten. If I asked anyone in my classes if they know who Danny Kaye was, my guess is that a couple of hands would go in the air and the other twenty-five would look at me blankly. This is no fault of their own, there are so many good films to catch up on, and if you are a fan of the Golden age of Hollywood, you probably want to absorb some film noir, or catch up on classic westerns that you have missed. Heck, maybe you would even want to see some of the socially relevant classics of that time period; films like “On the Waterfront”, “Gentleman’s Agreement”, or “The Best Years of our Lives”. Who could fault you with so many wonderful choices? I don’t ever want this continuing column to be about scolding people for the films they have not yet found. My purpose is always to bring attention to a movie that I want others to share and enjoy. While Danny Kaye starred in dozens of movies and did television up till his death in 1987, it is this movie that makes me most love him. It is time for me to share the love.
“The Court Jester” is a twist on the “Robin Hood” story. A band of outlaws has formed a secret clan to protect the infant that is the true King of England. A group of not so noble Noblemen, has helped a usurper gain the crown and now they seek the last surviving blood heir to end that line. To make the comparison even more complete, the lead conspirator behind the false King is Sir Ravenhurst , played by Basil Rathbone in a part that mirrors his role in “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. The leader of the outlaw group, sworn to protect the true King is known as The Black Fox. Among the followers of the Fox is Hubert Hawkins, a performer in a traveling carnival who dreams of d erring do and the beautiful maid Jean. Danny Kaye is Hawkins, consigned to a role as laundryman to the Fox and nursemaid to the infant king. He and Jean seize an opportunity to place themselves inside the court to gain access to the castle on behalf of the Fox. The means for doing so and the complications that follow make “The Court Jester” a lively entertainment filled with hummable songs, repeatable dialogue and beautiful art direction. It is also comically loaded for bear, with enough ammunition to take down a grizzly. There are corny puns, slapstick physical bits and sly parody of the traditional swashbuckling forms. All of this delivered by one of the most unique screen entertainers of all time. Danny Kaye was a clown, but a suave clown and this is his circus.

Much of the humor derives from the fact that this is a mistaken identity plot.  To start, Hawkins assumes the part of Giacomo, a jester imported from Italy to entertain the new Royal family. John Carradine, the patriarch of the acting family, appears briefly as the jester that the outlaws hope to replace. Since no one at the court knows Giacomo by sight, they think they have the perfect cover.  There of course is a twist on the plot because the jester is also an assassin, brought in to quell rival nobles in palace intrigue. So the hero thinks he is playing a simple entertainer and Ravenhurst thinks the fake jester is his hired killer. The confusion  over character goes even more crazy when the Princess, seeking escape from the plans of her father the usurper, chooses the jester as a love interest. It involves hypnosis and subterfuge from the chief lady in waiting Griselda, played by Mildred Natwick, standing in for Una O’Conner. 
Rathbone is at his oily best, planning assasinations, plotting to thwart an alliance with a powerful baron, and in the end showing one more time that he was Hollywood’s premier fencer. He plays the straight man to Kaye’s clown so well that you might think they had worked vaudeville or Broadway together years before. Although his lines are never the punch lines, he manages to fit in with the clever word play and come off as a really sinister character at the same time. I suppose like Bond aficionados, who prefer the actor they first discovered 007 with, Baker Street Irregulars will identify with the Sherlock Holmes that helped them discover the great detective. For me, Rathbone will always be the perfect Sherlock. He was the quintessential villain for generations of fans of Errol Flynn and other swashbuckling stars of the era. His casting here is a sly nod at the familiarity with which he played those parts. 
Danny Kaye gets to play several different roles in the story, without ever changing the character he is portraying. As Hawkins, he is a bit nebbish and googie eyed around the outlaws he is working with. As Giacomo he plays suave lover and cunning conspirator sometimes in the same scene. Inevitably he will also get to play the hero but before that happens he must be the buffoon that everyone underestimates or mistakes for someone else.  When he puts on the raiment of the jester, he entertains the whole court as only a song and dance man like Kaye could. The lyrics and rhyming dialogue that Kaye performed were crafted with the assistance of his wife, composer Sylvia Fine.  The delivery was all Danny Kaye. He could take a couple of silly lines, perform them in a funny voice or accent and make them memorably hysterical. In this film the pies-ta resistance is the dilemia over which cup to drink from in the ceremony preceding a joust he is forced to engage in. I hope it doesn’t spoil the movie for you but I can’t resist including part of  that sequence here:
The villainous but lovely princess in the film was played by Angela Lansbury. Glynis Johns, who later played Mrs Banks in the film version of Mary Poppins, is a pretty sexy partner for Kaye as Maid Jean. Both of these actresses get to play off different versions of Kaye’s character and they are suitably bewitched or befuddled as the case may call for. The witch Griselda, who is both matron and victim to the Princess, manages to confound the whole scenario by giving Hawkins the illusion of a romantic Don Juan type and later, makes him into a fine swordsman, all at the snap of a finger. Of course fingers get snapped in awkward situations and the pantomime of Kaye bouncing back and forth between his persona’s is one of the gifts of

the movie. He has to go from dashing devil may care lover to confused spy, to heroic outlaw all in the blink of a moment. That is Danny Kaye’s gift to film, his ability to instantly convey an emotion or a state of mind in an instance. The only parallel I can think of among contemporary performers is Robin Williams in one of his milder comic riffs. In a few weeks, we will see Ben Stiller tackle the role of “Walter Mitty” a character from a short story, who visualized and led a vivid imaginary life. Danny Kaye played the part in a musical comedy back in 1947. I doubt that Stiller will be expected to be quite as elastic as the Danny Kaye version of the character, I also doubt that he would be willing to try. Kaye’s gift feels truly unique. It may be imitated but never duplicated. 

Film styles change and many movie lovers of today may not have the patience for the way narratives unfolded in traditional Hollywood fare. I also know that despite the frequent love of films adapted from stage musicals, many people can’t relate to this form of musical story telling. I find it magical and I want others to take a chance and give the movie an opportunity to charm you. Pay close attention to the lyrics, there are delightful puns and word play in most every line. The opening title credits are funny. I mean the text and the font, not just the picture and the words. I have been keeping a list of all the films I watched this year and this one appears three times already, and it was not in theaters. 
It’s up to you to decide to enhance your life and seek out one of the wonderful comic geniuses of the twentieth century. Don’t let the fact that this actor and his style of comedy are not en vogue prevent you from experiencing one of the best comedies of the 1950s and a terrific musical to boot. All you have to do is choose. Now will it be the Vessel With the Pestle or the Flagon with the Dragon? I know which I will choose, no wait wasn’t there a Chalice from the Palace? Oh Oh. 
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day
A great Podcast with Danny Kayes Daughter on Warner Home Archives