The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
March 26th 2024

Before Quentin Tarantino co-opted their colorful monikers for his crew of overzealous gangsters in Reservoir Dogs (1992), Misters Blue, Green, Grey, and Brown hijacked a New York City subway train in Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Although these code names are one of the film’s most notable trademarks, they were added to it by screenwriter Peter Stone rather than plucked from John Godey’s original novel. When discussing The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, it is assumed the topic of conversation is 1974’s exercise in urban anxiety, but Godey’s novel has been adapted for the screen three times. Each iteration captures a decidedly different moment in the city in which it is set.

Like Mr. Blue, John Godey was also a pseudonym. Godey was born Morton Freedgood in Brooklyn, New York. He spent much of his life in New York City, leaving to serve in World War II and returning to the city to work in publicity positions for Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and United Artists; decades later, the latter released Sargent’s film in theaters. Freedgood formed a bitter outlook on the city’s politics, which he channeled into crime tales published under the pseudonym “Godey,” the most famous of which was 1973’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. The crux of the novel—a NYC subway train is hijacked by a crew of criminals and its passengers held for ransom—remained intact in its adaptation, but the vitriol Godey exhibited toward the city and its denizens in the novel was largely abandoned on the screen.

Aside from Stone’s addition of the now canonical codenames, Sargent’s film follows the action of Godey’s novel rather sincerely. Moving at a breakneck pace, Sargent seems to be using every trick he learned filming White Lightning (1973) with Burt Reynolds the previous year. He effortlessly weaves between shots of the train barreling through subway tunnels, cop cars dodging pedestrians and gridlocked vehicles, and the suits that run the city making matters worse rather than better. The latter is particularly evident in Lee Wallace’s portrayal of the mayor as a comically inept figurehead—a biting critique of Mayor John Lindsay. The film was cut by two editors with prior experience assembling films shot in NYC: Gerald B. Greenberg (The French Connection, 1971) and Robert Q. Lovett (Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1970). Together, they pieced together the various narrative threads with kineticism to spare. Sargent’s adaptation feels like an ode to tough-as-nails New Yorkers, the likes of which revel in booing The Mayor and giving lip to their hijackers.

In 1998, ABC premiered the second adaptation of Godey’s novel. It is a decidedly made-for-TV thriller that feels every bit of its era as Sargent’s gritty mid-70s adaptation does, with the requisite technological updates both on and off screen. Marketed as a more high-tech affair, with the criminals (now led by Vincent D’Onofrio) packing superior firepower and motion sensors. It has the aplomb of an episode of Law & Order but twice the runtime. Though shot largely in Toronto rather than NYC, it does speak to the tough-minded endurance of New Yorkers in the 90s, particularly in the wake of the 1993 LIRR shooting, which is explicitly referenced.

Just over a decade after The Taking of Pelham One Two Three ‘98 hijacked ABC’s airwaves, Tony Scott put the famed 6-train back on movie theater screens with the slightly re-titled The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009). With a script from Man on Fire (2004) and L.A. Confidential (1997) screenwriter Brian Helgeland, Scott’s version takes the most liberties with Godey’s novel. Taking place in a post-9/11 NYC and a post 2008 financial crisis America, Scott and Helgeland make the most of the headlines that moviegoers were inundated with in years prior. Scott’s 100 million dollar adaptation was positioned as a summer movie upon release and starred two major movie stars as its leads: John Travolta and Denzel Washington, as antagonist and protagonist, respectively. It is far and away the most action-heavy of the three adaptations and also characteristically brash; at one point Travolta actually says the line, “Like my bunghole, motherfucker” with a straight face. Scott’s grisly take on Godey’s novel would have gone too far in 1974 and would have been censored on the airwaves in 1998. It’s the furthest from Godey’s source but retains the spirit of Sargent’s film, capturing New York City in a state of constant panic, fueled by a cast that isn’t afraid to get weird.

Through its multiple adaptations across several decades of American cinema, Godey’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three has developed a mythical dimension. Robert Shaw’s Mr. Blue presages the noted convict-turned-novelist Eddie Bunker’s own turn as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, and its no-holds-barred approach toward capturing the city in a state of economic turmoil and disrepair anticipates how other filmmakers would document its streets through the decade, most notably in Taxi Driver (1976). In 1994, the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock began a verse on the hit track “Sure Shot” with the line, “Well, it’s the taking of the pelham one two three.” What he didn’t know is that it would be taken twice more.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three screens this afternoon, March 26, at the Paris Theater on 35mm as part “The Milestone Movies: The Anniversary Collection - 1974.”