It seems like just another day on the New York City subway, but it is not. As the passengers climb aboard the train known as Pelham One Two Three, they are unaware they are about to be plunged into danger. This is down to the three men, all dressed alike with moustaches, glasses and long overcoats, who board with them, and the man (Robert Shaw) who has approached the driver with a gun drawn and asked him to allow his accomplice (Martin Balsam) into the cab to take over the driving. What they have planned is an audacious ransom of an entire subway carriage - but how can they possibly escape?
In a decade of excellent, gritty thrillers, the seventies produced some genuine classics, yet The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was not immediately recognised as one of them. However, its reputation has only grown in stature over the years to the point that it now looks to be one of the greatest suspense pictures of its era, surprising for a film that reputedly flopped everywhere except the cities that had an underground railway system. Frequent showings on television caught out the casual viewer who found themselves utterly absorbed against their expectations, adding to the work's cult following.
It was based on the now largely forgotten bestselling novel by John Godey, a book with an ingenious premise where the carriage is hijacked by four sinister men, known only by their codenames: Shaw is Mr Blue, Balsam is Mr Green, and so forth. In Peter Stone's adaptation, we are always one step behind Mr Blue, who as the story draws on looks more and more like a criminal mastermind, and we share the intrigue of the transport police's Lieutenant Garber (Walter Matthau) about what precisely he has up his sleeve. Matthau and Shaw may only meet in one scene, but they are excellent antagonists, with Blue's icy control and Garber's laidback attitude masking deeply felt frustration.
Once Blue has separated the lead carriage from the rest of them, he and his cohorts - and the passengers - settle in the near-dark of a tunnel with only the radio to the control room linking them to the outside world. From there he contacts Garber and makes his demands: one million dollars to be brought to him in one hour. And if this doesn't happen? He starts killing one passenger per minute until the cash arrives. The situation is desperate, made even more so by its depiction of the authorities above Garber as solely interested in how this crisis will make them look to the voters - the mayor, especially, is rendered in buffoonish terms.
So it's really the triumph of Garber and the lower level city security not only against the criminals, but the bureaucrats as well. Every opportunity to ramp up the tension is seized, to the extent that the patrol car racing to the station to hand over the money crashes. It may be the city's worst nightmare, but as a thriller it runs like a dream with a plot that is put together with the precision of a Swiss watch, and thanks to Joseph Sargent's crisp direction every crucial point is emphasised. Also helping is the satisfying snap of the dialogue, which can be very funny or bring out the pressure the characters are under with equal ease. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a true gem of its kind, raw and exciting and acted to perfection: Matthau was never better, and the expression on his face that comprises the film's final shot is one of the classic visual punchlines. And as if that were not enough, David Shire's jazzy and menacing musical score is one of the greats as well.