The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)


The New York City Transit Police Department’s finest hour. 

The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)

This week, with crime and disorder in the NYC subway making national headlines, NYC transit movies came to mind.  There are surprisingly a few in that category, but the best of the bunch is The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974).

This movie is the screenplay adaption of the 1973 book by the same name. While the book is a worthy read in its own right, the film is a classic, with a solid cast and good story.  

For those who don’t know, the movie is about the hijacking of a subway train for ransom.  All NYC subway trains are identified by their station of origin and the time the train leaves that station.  So, a southbound #2 train leaving at 10:15 would be designated Wakefield 1015.  A southbound #6 train leaving at 1:23 would be designated Pelham 123 – hence the name.

The crew committing the hijacking is an eclectic group of strangers admitted to the caper for their skill set.  As the downtown local train hits the 28th Street Station, the perps spring into action.  All perps are heavily armed and willing to kill.  They go by code names Blue, Brown, Green, Grey, much like those used 20 years later by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs.  Robert Shaw (Jaws) gives a good performance as Blue and the cast of perps is filled out by Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Earl Hindman. 

These miscreants are matched up against the now-defunct NYC Transit Police Department.  Walter Matthau is funny, witty, and believable at Lt. Zachary Garber and is supported by the equally funny Jerry Stiller as Lt Rico Patrone. The Taking of Pelham 123 was made 20 years before the “hostile takeover” merged the Transit Police into the NYPD. 

Impetus for the merger are clear in the film.  The NYPD and Transit PD are in a jurisdictional battle from the start.  It leads to several dangerous situations where cops are put in peril because of a lack of communication and different management objectives. 

The Taking of Pelham 123 runs about an hour and 45 minutes.  There is some action in the film but it is not a edge-of-your-seat thriller.  I am not sure Walter Matthau is capable of thrilling anyone, but he can act and is as witty and sardonic as any veteran cop. 
And that, in the end, is what makes the film.  The interaction and tension between the well-drawn characters and agencies in a serious situation that requires some levity to keep things sane.  Which is an encapsulation of pretty much every cop’s career, anywhere.

The Taking of Pelham 123 and is available for free on HBO Max.  You can rent it on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, YouTube, etc. for about $3 or $4.  It’s also available for purchase on those platforms.  Check out the JustWatch website for more info.  You can find current updates on where to watch any film or show for free or behind a paywall.


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