Saturday, September 10, 2016

Drivin' that train, high on cocaine...

That saying about how such and such is "the kind of movie they just don't make anymore": does anyone watching a new movie ever predict that a new movie they're watching will one day occasion that kind of observation? And if so, what movies do forward-thinking viewers say that about.

WARNING: From here on out I'm tossing out spoilers left and right, just because I can't think of any other way to speak intelligently about what I want to say.

When people saw The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three in 1974 they likely thought it was just another cops-and-robbers movie, if perhaps a very good one. In context they weren't wrong. But it's very much the kind of movie they don't make anymore, in ways that are kind of a pity.

The basics: A quartet of men wearing obvious, uniform disguises and bearing aliases named after colors, take over a New York subway train. Their icy British leader, Mr. Blue, demands one million dollars within an hour or he'll kill one passenger per minute. A transit cop negotiates with him while trying to figure out and thwart his plan. 

The villains, especially blue and the uncontrollable psycho Gray, could be action villains from any period. But in other respects this film probably wouldn't have been made ten years earlier. Definitely not ten years later, much less forty. Consider.

1) Shot on location, it's proudly about New York, the glorious and scary and silly aspects. A little later it's hard not to imagine a lot of the local color being focus grouped out for being too limiting.

2) The hero is played by Walter Matthau. Walter Matthau was a great actor, and a veteran tough guy. But he was also a pudgy middle-aged man with black shoe polish in his hair. In fact if I had to guess I'd say the Hanna-Barbera people had him in mind when they designed Fred Flintstone. Sure, Clint Eastwood still plays lead roles in action movies far into his seventies, but that's dependent on him looking like he could still kick the asses of fit twenty year olds.

2B) His partner is played by Jerry Stiller, who was younger but even less cop-like.

3) Matthau spends most of the movie talking on a phone behind a desk. He seems to belong there. When he goes out in the field it's because time is running out, not because he feels pent up.

4) When Blue's plan is foiled in its latter stages, he asks if New York still has the death penalty. When Matthau's character responds in the negative - the state would bring it back in the nineties but hasn't used it since - he electrocutes himself. Think of that. There's no climactic battle between good and evil, because evil says, "Nah. I'm out." Speed or Die Hard, the latter of which also had a cold Brit as the bad guy, would never go that route.

5) There's another half hour or so in the picture, but it revolves around the pursuit of Mr. Green, who's  by far the most sympathetic and least intimidating of the criminals. Although he'd be happy enough to keep the money.

6) The very end of the movie? A sneeze and a knowing look.


susan said...

Good one. Funny you should mention this one as being the kind of movie they don't make anymore because another director actually tried it in 2009. Directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta it's one of those best forgotten - even if it weren't compared to the almost perfect film you've described. We watched it because we hadn't seen it before (plus, we usually like DW) and almost immediately thereafter found the one Walter Matthau made his own in 1974.

Not surprisingly, considering how many movies we've watched in the time since, never mind the books read, I've had to look up some reminders of favorite moments ie, Walter Matthau chaperoning a group of visiting Japanese officials (unaware they speak English as he insults them). Then there was this comment made by another cranky official: "Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents, to live forever?" Several people mentioned Pelham may have inspired Tarantino to create his colour-coded criminals in ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Sounds likely to me.

It's true, though, that there are many films that couldn't be made today and it's certainly true of this one that one of the major stars of the film is NY itself as it was in the mid-70s. Others made around that period had the city as a major influence on the characters and the action: The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, and Taxi Driver were all made in that decade. The last one, Taxi Driver, looks as grungy as it does partly because it was filmed during a garbage strike.

Talking about NYC reminds me that one of the best things about reading the Nero Wolfe books is that they too star the city during the long period when it was not only huge but also a vibrant and veritable mecca of reason and refinement. While the stories themselves were fantasies you can recognize the essential reality of the place as it grew and changed over the decades.

Ben said...

Yeah, I haven't seen the Tony Scott version, but I didn't have much reason to hope for it either. This is despite the fact that Scott directed True Romance, a movie that's always worth going back to. The great thing about the original is that it's an action movie with almost no glamor in the conventional sense and very little machismo, and that's an almost impossibly hard sell now. Many directors boast Hong Kong/Taiwan influences, but I suspect they learn the wrong lessons. I'm almost more interested in seeing a TV remake I've read about with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D'Onofrio.

That scene of one of the visiting Japanese responding to Walter Matthau in English is priceless. It definitely makes it look like they were having fun with him to begin with. I think it's pretty much been confirmed that Tarantino took the color code names in Reservoir Dogs from this movie. The most probable explanation is that his characters are all movie buffs like he is, so they work references into their lives.

Dog Day Afternoon is another film that it's hard to imagine getting made much later than it was. The thing about it is that there's a big bang at the beginning and it has a violent tragic end, but in the middle it's mostly a character piece, a sometimes funny one. That's great background about Taxi Driver being shot in the middle of a garbage strike. The smell had to be annoying for the cast and crew. Bet Robert Deniro didn't even have to go out of his way to go method.

Yes, New York could be called the third great character of the Nero Wolfe series. Of course Nero himself was a Montenegrin and Archie was from Ohio, but that sense of foreignness is part of the New York experience for many. The books are of their time. I have to wonder if Stout could have written his stories about the current gentrified Big Apple. Another writer has added new books to the series - kind of a queasy proposition - but he's stuck to the earlier periods.