I have a soft spot for seventies flicks that show New York City the way it used to be, back when regular people could afford to live there and there was such thing as a native New Yorker. If you go to the Big Apple now, half the people are tourists, a quarter don't speak English, and the other quarter are students, living in the city as long as their student loans will allow them to. Any one who actually lives in New York lives in New Rochelle, the Bronx, Queens, Yonkers, basically somewhere so separate from Manhattan that it's like living in a completely different city.
I had the wonderful privilege of living in Manhattan for a few years (not Manhattan, Kansas), and what was most surprising to me was how different the City is in reality compared to the perceived notions the rest of the country has of it from movies and TV. New Yorkers are 'rude' and 'in a hurry' and eat hot dogs and ride in Taxi cabs, according to the lore. New York, to the layman, is a dirty place where you'll get robbed for sure and get endlessly lost. This is how New York was in the seventies, pre-9/11 and before New York became a city strictly for the very wealthy.
Perhaps I love New York 'seventies' movies (Gloria, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy to name a few) because they show New York how it used to be, a city where the blue-collar working man in charge and yes, if you weren't in a hurry you might get run over.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) wonderfully captures New York City life, and it's a perfect example of the anti-romanticized version of New York we all know from every movie we've ever watched about the City (as much as I love Denzel Washington, I'm not talking about that movie version).
It's essentially a heist movie about a group of robbers who hijack a subway car, hold the bystanders hostage, and plan to escape with the ransom money. Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) is delightful as the brains of the operation, and the only one allowed to negotiate with the transit police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau). The movie is essentially a cat-and-mouse adventure between the two salty veterans, as Garber tries to negotiate more reasonable terms with Mr. Blue, who is always two steps ahead of Garber.
It's no wonder Quentin Tarantino was influenced by this film. You can see Pelham's DNA all over his body of work, from the outrageous music score to various locations with juicy set design. During the negotiating, we cut to the Mayor's uptown house and find the Mayor fighting a cold. He's involved in the heist, as he is responsible for finding the one million dollars Mr. Blue demands for the hostages. The few scenes involving the Mayor are hilarious; the Mayor makes his decisions based on future election results, and he needs a group of men prodding him to make decisions, crackling dialog galore.
The film is hilarious, mostly due to the dialog. This is some of the best dialog I've ever heard. It's biting, funny, succinct, and it sounds authentic. Real New Yorkers would sound like this. The Pelham train moves at one point in the film, to the surprise of everyone. When Garber explains this to the rest of his team, they ask, "Who's moving?" Garber asks, "How many hijacked trains to we have in this city?" He-he.
The movie is a thriller for all intents and purposes, but it never takes itself too seriously. The idea is so ridiculous that it can't (you're hijacking a subway underground? Where are you going to go?), and director Joseph Sargent knows this and has fun with it. It's a heist movie with real characters, characters who snap at one another, make jokes, and make smart-ass remarks. It's entertainment of the highest echelon.
Alas, I watched Pelham with the utmost nostalgia for the City. At one point, a police cruiser drives through Astor Place, an area I walked nearly every day to get to class. And boy, did it look different. Ultimately, that's the magic of watching these old New York movies; you can watch a movie that was filmed there three years ago and it could look completely different. The city is amorphous, continually changing, and it's illustrious history has been documented in some great films.
This one is fun, both from a critical stand point, being a 'seventies' film made during the Hollywood New Wave era with top-tier performances, but also from an entertainment stand point; it's a fun popcorn movie. So, I guess it's like Jaws but instead of a shark or water it's a subway train.