At the Movies

Michael Wood

The chief pleasure of the new version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the sight of John Travolta as the model bad guy. He is genial and livid by turns, entirely persuasive in both moods, the very image of crazed behaviour, and far more engaging and unhinged than he was in Pulp Fiction. That film brought certain of his earlier roles to mind, but this one makes us want to rethink Grease entirely, and maybe the whole genre of the musical.

This is a heist movie, but the caper itself gets a little blurred, because the director, Tony Scott, is not very interested in the planning or execution of crime, only in the psychodrama of criminality, and its counterpointing with the travails of the good man, in this case Denzel Washington, caught up in a large-scale crisis. Around the two personalities there is essentially just buzz, lots of colour and crash and speeded-up film, New York as a hazy video, not so much a city as a kaleidoscope. The criminals must have planned their action, because it’s complicated and they’re doing it, but they seem to have fallen into it as if by magic. There’s a considerable contrast here with Joseph Sargent’s earlier version (1974), where we see the men gather and can tell they’re heading for something ominous, if only because they’re all wearing the same sort of false moustache. They are called, we soon learn, Mr Blue, Mr Green, Mr Brown, Mr Grey – possibly not their real names, but a touch of criminal style Tarantino certainly borrowed for Reservoir Dogs.

The caper in both films involves the hijacking of a New York subway train heading south into Manhattan from Pelham Bay Park. The 123, I learn from the indispensable Internet Movie Database, refers to the time of departure from the Bronx: 1.23. Four men hold up the train, detach a coach, keeping 18 hostages in it, and demand a ransom over the intercom, or by cellphone. An aural relationship develops between the leader of the gang and a train dispatcher (in the new film – in the old film the man is a transit cop), and the trick is to get the ransom money to the train before the hijacker starts to carry out his threat to murder a passenger for each minute of delay. Travolta shoots someone just for the hell of it, for some small infringement of what he said were the rules, but he calms down after that. In the other film, Robert Shaw, as the gang leader, also executes someone, but he is clearly making a point, and doesn’t get the hectic pleasure out of his deed that Travolta manifestly does. Throughout the new film, various people insist that the incident has nothing to do with terrorism, as if the thought of a bit of robbery with violence were ordinary and consoling, even if its occurrence in the subway is a little eccentric. All this protesting is in vain. Travolta doesn’t care about the ransom money; at one point we see him chuckle as he uses his computer to check the rise in the value of gold, implying that he’ll make so much from the market that the ransom will be small change. This keeps him marginally within the realm of reasonable greed. But everything else about his behaviour suggests a sheer joy in the effects of his own unpredictable doings. He is having a great time, innocent people are scared to death, and rightly so, the city is stalled in fear, and only our intrepid dispatcher can save the day. What is this if not terrorism and its counterpunch?

The hijackers have a subtle twist in their plan, clearer in the old movie than in the new one. New York subway trains can’t run without a driver because of a mechanism known as the dead man feature, which means that if there isn’t a live hand on the throttle the train will stop. So if the hijacked coach is moving the police will know the gang is still on it. The gang however has a device to circumvent the dead man provision, and send the train hurtling towards South Ferry (or, in the new film, Coney Island) full of passengers, while they, the members of the gang, make for the street and their getaway. It is at this point that the films diverge most interestingly.

In the new one the police surround and shoot the other members of the gang, but Travolta makes it onto the Manhattan Bridge, pursued by Washington, who left the dispatching room because Travolta had insisted that he deliver the ransom money himself. The cops catch up with them in mid-river, and the movie suddenly turns into a western, complete with shoot-out. Travolta doesn’t want to be captured, he wants Washington to kill him. They’re old pals by now, it’s the least a good man can do.

Washington is as charismatic a good guy as we’re going to get, but between any good guy and a really irresistible bad guy there’s really no contest. In life, in death, Travolta wins either way. In the earlier film the balance is different, and the film is also interested in something more than the clash of two men or two styles. Robert Shaw is a terrific villain – think of him in From Russia with Love – but he’s not complicated or crazed, and his counterpart in this movie, the transit cop, is Walter Matthau, an actor of ‘benign bad temper’, as Nora Sayre wrote when the movie first came out. ‘Surely no one,’ she said, ‘can say Gesundheit to a sneezer quite so aggressively.’ Matthau also projects an enduring weariness that is itself a weapon. Almost any villain, or anyone, will despair of having an effect on him. The scene where he meets up with Shaw – underground on the tracks, not up on a bridge – is magnificent. Shaw, like Travolta, would rather die than serve time, and asks, in the clipped accent of a very well educated Englishman, if they have the death penalty in New York. Matthau says no, and Shaw places the side of his foot against the live rail, electrocuting himself before our eyes in short order. Even Matthau is impressed.

But then there is another scene, which not only doesn’t but couldn’t appear in the new movie, because it cares only about Travolta among the criminals – the others are just stooges. Shaw’s chief companion is the many-faced, or at least many registered Martin Balsam (Cape Fear, Catch-22, The Anderson Tapes, dozens of TV programmes), and he makes it out of the subway before Matthau gets there. The film’s epilogue has him wallowing on his bed in all the money, laughing his head off. A knock on the door. It’s Matthau and his sidekick, checking on men with a record who know how to drive a subway train. They don’t suspect Balsam in particular. He gathers up the money in a rush, and sticks it in the stove. Opens the door, submits to the usual questions. The policemen are about to leave when one of them asks for a light. Not finding one, he says he’ll get one from the stove. We think we know what’s coming now, but no, that’s not the irony here, just a feint in that direction. Balsam says the stove is a little tricky, he’d better take care of it himself; turns it on, the policeman lights up. Now they leave, the door closes, and . . . Balsam sneezes. He was the man Matthau said Gesundheit to over the sound system. The door opens slightly, Matthau looks in, the frame goes still, and the film is over.

The endings of both movies seem to assert the return of order, and the lesson that crime, however near the miss, doesn’t pay. But the counter-story lurking in each case – there are always counter-stories in the vicinity of tidy closures – is very different. Washington wins out because he is nicer than Travolta. He is nicer, but this is not much of a case for justice, or even probability. Matthau catches his man through sheer wild luck, the timing of a sneeze – a second later, and Balsam was off the hook. This is not much of a case for justice either, but it makes us appreciate its fragility.