The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – About

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974 film).jpg

Directed by Joseph Sargent
Produced by Gabriel Katzka
Edgar J. Scherick
Screenplay by Peter Stone
Based on The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
by John Godey
Starring Walter Matthau
Robert Shaw
Martin Balsam
Héctor Elizondo
Music by David Shire
Cinematography Owen Roizman
Edited by Gerald B. Greenberg
Robert Q. Lovett
Palomar Pictures
Palladium Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
October 2, 1974
Running time
104 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3.8 million
Box office $18.7 million

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (also known as The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3) is a 1974 American thriller film directed by Joseph Sargent, produced by Gabriel Katzka and Edgar J. Scherick, and starring Walter MatthauRobert ShawMartin Balsam and Héctor Elizondo. Peter Stone adapted the screenplay from the 1973 novel of the same name written by Morton Freedgood under the pen name John Godey.

The film received critical acclaim and holds a rating of 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 35 reviews. Several critics called it one of 1974’s finest films and it was a box office success. As in the novel, the film follows a group of criminals taking the passengers hostage inside a New York City Subway car for ransom. Musically, it features “one of the best and most inventive thriller scores of the 1970s”. It was remade in 1998 as a television film and was again remade in 2009 as a theatrical film.


On the New York City subway, four men carrying concealed submachine guns and wearing similar disguises board a downtown (southbound) 6 train at different stations. The men, using the code names Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey and Mr. Brown, take 17 passengers and the conductor hostage in the first car, uncouple it from the other cars, and move it down the tunnel just south of the 28th Street station on Park Avenue South. One of the hostages happens to be an undercover police officer.

Zachary Garber, a curmudgeonly New York Transit Authority police lieutenant, is leading officials from the Tokyo subway system on a tour of the subway command center when Pelham 123 inexplicably stops between stations and ignores radio calls. Then Mr. Blue, the leader of the hijackers, subsequently announces over the radio, “Your train has been taken.” Blue demands $1 million ransom (2018 equivalent: $5 million) to be delivered precisely within one hour or they will kill one passenger for every minute it is late.

Garber, his co-worker Lieutenant Rico Patrone, and other transit workers cooperate while trying to guess how the criminals intend to get away. Garber deduces that one of the hijackers knows how to operate the train and is probably a disgruntled former transit employee. Garber also notices that Blue has a British accent, while Green has a severe cold. Green sneezes periodically throughout the ordeal, to which Garber responds each time with a polite “gesundheit“.

The supervisor at Grand Central Tower goes to investigate the stalled train but is shot on approach by Mr. Grey. Conversations between the hijackers reveal to the audience that Blue was a mercenary in Africa and Green was a motorman caught in a drug bust. There is tension between Blue and Grey; Blue confides to Green that he believes Grey is “mad” and potential trouble.

The Mayor, after some hesitation, agrees to pay the ransom, hoping to win voters in the upcoming election. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York prepares the ransom money, which is transported uptown in a speeding police car that crashes well before it reaches the 28th Street station. As the deadline is reached, Garber bluffs Blue by telling him that the money has reached the station and just has to be walked down the tunnel to the train. Mr. Blue accepts this and doesn’t kill any hostages. Minutes later, a police motorcycle arrives with the ransom and two patrolmen carry the money down the tunnel to the train. During the tense standoff, however, one of numerous police snipers in the subway tunnel shoots at one of the hijackers, and all exchange gunfire with the police. In retaliation, Blue kills the train’s conductor.

The money is finally delivered to the train and divided among the hijackers. Blue then gives Garber his next demands: restore power to the subway line, set the signals in the path of the train to green all the way to South Ferry, and clear all police from the stations along the route. Garber says it will take time to secure his demands, which Blue accepts. Before the process is complete, however, the hijackers move the train about ten blocks further south. When Garber becomes alarmed, Blue explains that this is to put distance between the subway car and the police still inside the tunnel.

The hijackers use a gadget to override the dead-man’s switch so that the train will run without a motorman at the controls. Garber leaves the command center to meet up with Inspector Daniels above ground along the anticipated escape route of the train. When Patrone confirms that the signals along the route are all green, the hijackers set the train in motion and get off. As the hijackers make their way to an emergency exit in the tunnel, the undercover officer jumps off the train and hides in the tunnel. Unaware that the hijackers are no longer on the train, Garber and Daniels drive above ground along the train’s route.

While the hijackers collect their disguises and weapons for disposal, Grey refuses to give up his gun, resulting in a stand-off with Blue, who shoots him dead. While Blue and Green take Grey’s share of the money, the undercover officer shoots and kills Brown. Green escapes through the emergency exit onto the street, while Blue exchanges fire with the officer until he wounds him.

Garber, contemplating Blue’s last suspicious movement of the train, suddenly realizes that the hijackers must have found a way to defeat the dead-man’s feature and are no longer onboard. Garber and Daniels race back uptown to the area above ground where the train had stopped. Garber enters the same emergency exit from street level, and confronts Blue before he can finish off the undercover officer. Blue seemingly surrenders, and asks if New York still has the death penalty. When Garber tells him no, Blue commits suicide by stepping onto the third rail.

Meanwhile the runaway subway car with the hostages gathers speed and hurtles through the southbound tunnels. When it enters the loop at South Ferry Station leading back uptown, its excessive speed triggers the automatic safeties built into the system. The car brakes, leaving the remaining hostages bruised but safe.

When Garber learns that none of the three dead hijackers was ever a transit employee, he concludes that the surviving hijacker must be the one. Working their way through a list of former motormen “discharged for cause,” Garber and Patrone knock on the door of Harold Longman just as he is reveling in his share of the ransom money. After hastily hiding the money, Longman lets them in and then bluffs his way through their casual interrogation. As Garber and Patrone leave, Longman complains indignantly about being suspected. Garber apologizes and says they’ll be back with a search warrant. Garber begins to close the door behind them when Longman sneezes. Garber says “gesundheit” as the door shuts. Garber re-opens the door and gives Longman a caustic stare.



The novel was published in February 1973 by Putnam, but Palomar Productions had secured the film rights and Dell had bought the paperback rights months earlier in September, 1972. The paperback rights sold for $450,000.

Novelist Godey (Morton Freedgood) was a “subway buff.” The novel and the film came out during the so-called “Golden Age” of skyjacking in the United States, from 1968 through 1979. Additionally, New York City was edging toward a financial crisis, crime had risen citywide (as depicted in the contemporaneous film Death Wish, and the subway was perceived as neither safe nor reliable.

At first the Metropolitan Transportation Authority refused to cooperate with the filmmakers. Godey’s novel was more detailed about how the hijackers would accomplish their goal and recognized that the caper’s success did not rely solely on defeating the “deadman feature” in the motorman’s cab. Screenwriter Stone, however, made a fictional override mechanism the lynchpin of the script. Director Sargent explained, “We’re making a movie, not a handbook on subway hijacking…I must admit the seriousness of ‘Pelham’ never occurred to me until we got the initial TA reaction. They thought it potentially a stimulant—not to hardened professional criminals like the ones in our movie, but to kooks. Cold professionals can see the absurdities of the plot right off, but kooks don’t reason it out. That’s why they’re kooks. Yes, we gladly gave in about the ‘deadman feature.’ Any responsible filmmaker would if he stumbled onto something that could spread into a new form of madness.”

Sargent said, “It’s important that we don’t be too plausible. We’re counting on the film’s style and charm and comedy to say, subliminally at least, ‘Don’t take us too seriously.’” (The credits have a disclaimer that the Transit Authority did not give advice or information for use in the film.)

After eight weeks of negotiations, and through the influence of Mayor John Lindsay, the MTA relented, but required that the producers take out $20 million in insurance policies including special “kook coverage” in case the movie inspired a real-life hijacking. This was in addition to a $250,000 fee for use of the track, station, subway cars, and TA personnel.

The TA also insisted that no graffiti appear in the film. “New Yorkers are going to hoot when they see our spotless subway cars,” Sargent said. “But the TA was adamant on that score. They said to show graffiti would be to glorify it. We argued that it was artistically expressive. But we got nowhere. They said the graffiti fad would be dead by the time the movie got out. I really doubt that.” (Mayor Lindsay declared the first war on graffiti in 1972 but it flourished until the mid-1980s.)

Other changes included beefing up Matthau’s role. In the novel, Garber is the equivalent of the Patrone character in the film. “I like the piece,” Matthau said. “It moves swiftly and stays interesting right down to the wire. That’s the reason I wanted to do it. The TA inspector I play is really a supporting role—they built it up a bit when I expressed interest in it—but it’s still secondary.” In the novel, it is Inspector Daniels who confronts Mr. Blue in the tunnel during the climax. Additionally, screenwriter Peter Stone gave the hijackers their color code names and the Longman character his telltale cold.

Filming began on November 23, 1973 and was completed in late April, 1974. The budget was $3.8 million.

Filming locations

Production began with scenes inside the subway tunnel. These were filmed over the course of eight weeks on the local tracks of the IND Fulton Street Line at the abandoned Court Street station in Brooklyn. Closed to the public in 1946, it became a filming location and home to the New York Transit Museum. (Among other films, the Court Street station was used for The French ConnectionDeath Wish, and the 2009 remake of Pelham.)

The production company set up chess boards, card tables and ping pong tables along the Court Street platform for cast and crew recreation between set-ups. Robert Shaw apparently beat all comers in ping pong.

Although this was an abandoned spur of track, passing A and E trains rumbled through adjacent tracks on their regular schedules. Dialogue that was marred by the noise was later post-dubbed. The Third Rail, which carries 600 volts of direct current, was shut off and three protective bars were placed against the rail, but the cast and crew were told to treat it as if it were still live. “Those TA people…are super careful,” Sargent said. “They anticipate everything. By the fifth week we were dancing our way through those tunnels like nobody’s business. They were expecting that, too. That’s when they told us of the fatalities in the tunnels. They’re mostly old-timers. The young guys still have a healthy fear of the place.”

“There was one scene where Robert Shaw was to step on the third rail,” Sargent recalled. “When we were rehearsing the scene, Shaw accidentally stubbed his toe and the sparks from his special-effects boot flew everywhere. He turned white as a sheet. We had eight weeks of that. I think we got out just in time. It was like coal mining.”

According to a notation on imdb, the crew wore surgical masks during the tunnel scenes. Shaw’s biographer, John French, reported: “There were rats everywhere and every time someone jumped from the train, or tripped over the lines, clouds of black dust rose into the air, making it impossible to shoot until it had settled.”

Matthau, who had one scene in the tunnel, said, “There are bacteria down there that haven’t been discovered yet. And bugs. Big ugly bugs from the planet Uranus. They all settled in the New York subway tunnels. I saw one bug mug a guy. I wasn’t down there a long time—but long enough to develop the strangest cold I ever had. It stayed in my nose for five days, then went to my throat. Finally I woke up one morning with no voice at all, and they had to shut down for the day.”

According Backstage, the filmmakers were the first to utilize a “flash” process developed by Movielab to bring out detail when shooting with low light in the tunnel. The process reportedly increased film speed by two stops. It allowed the filmmakers to use fewer lights and generators and save five days out of the schedule.

At least two different R22 trains portrayed Pelham 1-2-3. As it enters 28th Street station, the head car is labeled 7339. However, in an early scene at Grand Central, 7339 is seen on the express track across the platform. Later, after being cut from the rest of the train, the head car is labeled 7434. R22 cars first went into service in April 1957, and the vast majority of the 450 cars were scrapped in 1987.

After two months in the tunnel, production moved to Filmways Studios at 246 East 127th Street in East Harlem, where a replica of the Transit Authority’s Brooklyn control center was constructed. Originally an MGM studio in the 1920s, Filmways Studios was used for Butterfield 8The Godfather, The Wiz, and Manhattan. The building was demolished in the 1980s.

The exterior street scenes above the hijacked subway train were filmed at the subway entrance at 28th and Park Avenue South in Manhattan. The mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion, was used for exteriors.


The Jerry Fielding and Don Ellis sounding score, composed and conducted by David Shire, “layers explosive horn arrangements and serpentine keyboard riffs over a rhythm section that pits hard-grooving basslines against constantly shifting but always insistent layers of percussion”. Shire used the 12-tone composition method to create unusual, somewhat dissonant melodic elements. The soundtrack album was the first CD release by Film Score Monthly, and was later released by Retrograde Records. The end titles contain a more expansive arrangement of the theme, courtesy of Shire’s wife at the time, Talia Shire, who suggested that he end the score with a more traditional ode to New York.


The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was released on October 2, 1974. It grossed $16,550,000 at the box office. For several years after the film was released, the New York City Transit Authority would not schedule any train to leave Pelham Bay Park station at 1:23. Although this policy was eventually rescinded, dispatchers have generally avoided scheduling a Pelham train at 1:23 p.m. or a.m.

Critical reception

The film was generally well received by critics. Variety called it “a good action caper” but “the major liability is Peter Stone’s screenplay, which develops little interest in either Matthau or Shaw’s gang, nor the innocent hostages” which are “simply stereotyped baggage.” While the trade paper complained that the Mayor was “played for silly laughs,” it called Shaw “superb in another versatile characterization.”

Boxoffice thought that “some of the excitement has been lost” translating the novel to the screen, but “there is entertainment value in Peter Stone’s screenplay…”

The New York Times thought it captured the mood of New York and New Yorkers. “Throughout there’s a skillful balance between the vulnerability of New Yorkers and the drastic, provocative sense of comedy that thrives all over our sidewalks. And the hijacking seems like a perfectly probable event for this town. (Perhaps the only element of fantasy is the implication that the city’s departments could function so smoothly together.) Meanwhile, the movie adds up to a fine piece of reporting—and it’s the only action picture I’ve seen this year that has a rousing plot.”

The film was one of several released that year that gave New York a bad image, including Law and Disorder, Death Wish, Serpico, and The Super Cops. Another New York Times critic wrote, “New York is a mess, say these films. It’s run by fools. Its citizens are at the mercy of its criminals who, as often as not, are protected by an unholy alliance of civil libertarians and crooked cops. The air is foul. The traffic impossible. Services are diminishing and the morale is such that ordering a cup of coffee in a diner can turn into a request for a fat lip.” But The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, “compared to the general run of New York City films, is practically a tonic, a good-humored, often witty suspense melodrama in which the representatives of law and decency triumph without bending the rules.”

The Boston Globe called it “fast, funny and fairly terrifying,” and “a nerve-racking ride,” and appreciated the “wry humor” of Stone’s script. It tapped into a darker reality: “A short time ago subways were safe; today some of them are full of the dark rage of asylums. And who really is to say a Pelham-type incident is out of the question?” 

The Los Angeles Times called it “coarse-textured and effective, a cartoon-vivid melodrama and not, it’s nice to know, a case study of psychopathic behavior. ‘Pelham’ is in fact the best to date of the new multiple-jeopardy capers, fresh, lively and suspenseful…There are some marvelously managed scenes in the subway tunnels and on teeming platforms and at the barricaded street-level entrances. The subway nerve center is fascinating, and indeed one of the pleasures of the film is its glimpse of how things work…The violence is handled with restraint; the dangers are mixed with raucous humor and what stays clear is that the aim is swift entertainment.” 

Roger Ebert‘s contemporary review gave the film 3 out of a possible 4 stars. He praised the film’s “unforced realism”, and the supporting characters who elevated what could have been a predictable crime thriller: “we care about the people not the plot mechanics. And what could have been formula trash turns out to be fairly classy trash, after all.”

The film holds a 100% “Fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 35 critics.


BAFTA Awards
Writers Guild of America Award
  • 1975: Nominated, “Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium”—Peter Stone


In 1998, the film was remade as a television film with the same title, with Edward James Olmos in the Matthau role and Vincent D’Onofrio replacing Shaw as the senior hijacker. Although not particularly well received by critics or viewers, this version was reportedly more faithful to the book, though it revised the setting with new technologies.

Another remake set in a post 9/11 New York City directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta, was released in 2009 to mixed reviews.

See also


  1. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1974, p.N1
  2. Jump up^ “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)”Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 8 March 2018.
  3. Jump up to:a b “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”Turner Classic MoviesAtlantaTurner Broadcasting System (Time Warner). Retrieved April 19,2016.
  4. Jump up^ Godey, John (1974). The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1st ed.). New York CityDell BooksISBN 978-0440184959.
  5. Jump up to:a b “Taking of Pellham 123”Allmusic. 2013. Retrieved June 10,2013.
  6. Jump up^ Variety, Sept. 6, 1972 page 60
  7. Jump up^ New York Times, 28 Jan 1974. p 29.
  8. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1974, p.N1
  9. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1974, p.N1
  10. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1974, p.N1
  11. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1974, p.N1
  12. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1974, p.N1
  13. Jump up^
  14. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1974, p.N1
  15. Jump up^
  16. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1974, p.N1
  17. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1974, p.N1
  18. Jump up^
  19. Jump up^ French, John. “Robert Shaw: The Price of Success.” Dean Street Press.
  20. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1974, p.N1
  21. Jump up^ Backstage, March 1, 1974
  22. Jump up^
  23. Jump up to:a b “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)”Film Score Monthly. 2013. Retrieved June 10, 2013.
  24. Jump up^ Adams, Doug. CD liner notes
  25. Jump up^ Dwyer, Jim (1991). Subway lives : 24 hours in the life of the New York City subway (1st ed.). New York CityCrown Publishers, Inc.ISBN 978-0517584453.
  26. Jump up^ Variety, Oct. 2, 1974, p.22
  27. Jump up^ New York Times, Oct. 3, 1974, p.50
  28. Jump up^ New York Times, Nov. 10, 1974
  29. Jump up^ Boston Globe, Oct. 17, 1974, p. 61
  30. Jump up^ Los Angeles Times, Oct. 23, 1974
  31. Jump up^ Ebert, Roger (October 2, 1974). “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved May 31, 2017.
  32. Jump up^ “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)”Rotten Tomatoes. 2013. Retrieved November 1, 2013.

External links


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s