Carly at the Movies | Taking of Pelham 1-2-3: Express vs. Local

I spent Sunday afternoon on the Pelham 123 subway line (the brand new Express version), then went home and switched to the 1974 Local, playing that night on an area TV station. And just like in the real New York subway system, if you’re in a big rush grab the Express – the Local takes longer, but gets you there just the same. Plus you have time to stop along the way and smell the garbage.

Action director Tony Scott helms the Express, with Denzel Washington and John Travolta aboard as goodguy and badguy, while sure-handed Joseph Sargent handled the throttle on the older, slower Local, featuring breezy Walter Matthau and no-nonsense Robert Shaw.

They tell essentially the same story. Four heavily-armed crooks hijack a busy subway train, hold the passengers hostage and demand a bundle o’ money delivered within one hour; otherwise they threaten to start shooting. The gimmick that drives the plot is: once they’ve got the money, how on earth do the crooks escape? There they are in a hole in the ground with cops waiting at either end of the tunnel. Both directors take liberties with the exciting John Godey novel and both provide sufficient fireworks.

Even chopped up and stuffed with countless commercials for overpriced new cars and cures for erectile dysfunction, Pelham 1974 is more believable because the tension is allowed to develop naturally. No need for a jiggly camera and blaring music. The only thing they had back in those days that we don’t anymore is patience. Hollywood unfortunately assumes that EVERYone has the attention span of a teenager.

Denzel is his usual self. The guy has stage presence up the wazoo, and his portrayal as a decent fellow who has to face his own shortcomings is well done. Until, of course, the film turns into a chase-and-confrontation between him and Travolta, and loses the disbelief we’ve been suspending for two solid hours.

Travolta has more fun than anyone else in either movie. He’s over-the-top, loud, swaggering, and gets a big kick out of shooting people point-blank. His head henchman is played by the marvelous character actor Luis Guzman. Too bad there wasn’t room in the script to expand this character or their relationship.

The Aides De Crook in Pelham 1974, Martin Balsam and Hector Elizondo, were better used. Well, it was a film era when there were simply more and better character actors in general. Back then, it was okay to be a rather amiable villain, out simply to get rich. Nowadays you gotta have a gunny sack full of neurosi.

While hurtling along beneath the streets of Manhattan, you’re bound to learn more about being a subway motorman than you’ll ever need to know, and this film’s McGuffin is the Dead Man’s Feature whereby a train cannot move unless a living person is pushing down on it. Supposedly, that is. But in movies, at least, everything can be overcome, and we find there’s more than one way to escape from a mousetrap.

Pelham 2009 acquaints us with that old urban legend, the abandoned subway stop, the one that may (or may not) exist beneath the Waldorf, built specifically for FDR back in the 1940s. After the ransom question is dealt with, the film becomes completely an action thriller and is thenceforth believable only to the extent of your own gullibility.

The 1974 model trumps 2009 on the ending alone. It’s absolutely perfect, and has been artfully assembled throughout the film right under your nose, so to speak. Back in those days, Walter Matthau was at his charming best, a young curmudgeon trudging through life, expecting and getting the worst from people. I simply have to recommend this film; it’s available on DVD or via Netflix. The newer version is still playing everywhere, and although it’s flawed, it’s still a pleasant enough diversion. Hey, it’s summertime. Whaddaya expect?

 

– Column by Carl Larsen


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