Take Pelham 1, less 2, thee

[21 July 2009]

By tjmHolden

Source: IMDBSource: IMDB


Okay, I admit. Bad title. Possibly even one of my all-time worsts. If I’d had more than three seconds to work it through, I might have come up with something better.

On the other hand, given that I haven’t had a lot of sleep . . . maybe not. The reason that I haven’t had much sleep is that I was up late last night. And I was up late last night because I was doing what always gets me in trouble: following my impulses.

The impulse that deprived me of my mental faculties is probably inferable from the entry title, and if not the title, then the pictures above.

Basically, what I did with my late night was watch the two incarnations of “Pelham 1-2-3”—the stellar 1974 version, and the widely-panned 2009 redo. Actually, I wouldn’t sharpen up the ole butcher knife over the latter, but, if comparison is going to be involved, there can be little doubt that the earlier version is a far superior product. I actually would encourage those of you who haven’t yet seen the Denzel Washington-John Travolta remake to do so—as long as you promise on the spirit of your evaporated last paycheck that at some point you’ll find a way to see the Walter Matthau-Robert Shaw (Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller) original.

They really don’t make movies like that any more. And maybe if they studied more of them, they would realize they should.


I know that this is not the place that you tend to turn to for movie reviews. PM has other corners for that purpose. And Roger Ebert, to name but the best, would be another logical resource. So, rather than embarrass myself (and waste your time), I’ll focus on what I tend to specialize in—which is . . . actually, I’ll have to get back to you on that.

 


Well, okay, after thinking about it, I realize that I tend to write about society and history and politics and cultural values, which is . . . come to think of it—yeah—I think that is what really caught my attention when I sat down with these two films. And it was not only about how Hollywood has changed (and how bad that is for us), but also that there are things in entertainments that are instructive and educational (and even fun!) that viewers either are willing to tolerate or might even benefit from consuming. Ideas and points of emphasis that Hollywood ought not to presume its ticket-buyers wouldn’t want to see.

Which is sort of my way of saying that I am not so sure that if Hollywood had given us more of ‘74 and less of ‘09, we would actually have been unhappy. Or to put it in a more positive light: there was a lot that we got back then that we could have benefitted from today.

“What, for instance?” you say?

Well, above all, humor. Not the slapstick, implausibly contrived, lowest common denominator stuff of comedies today—where bodily functions or below-average IQ becomes the punch line prodding the guffaw. Rather, the kind of mundane, ironic chuckle that arises when workaday stiffs are in the mix: folks who may not be as smart as they think, but are not so pig-headed stupid as to refrain from laughing at themselves when they have been caught short. Which, as 1974’s “The Taking of Pelham 123” makes clear, occurs quite often.

Thus is it that after Matthau finishes giving a tour to mute Japanese visitors at the outset—during which he has openly ridiculed them as “yellow”, “slant-eyed”, “monkeys” who don’t understand a lick of English—he is bid farewell by his foreign guests . . . in passably precise English. The visitors betray no sense of malice—which makes the situation all the worse. And it is at that point that the camera lingers over Matthau’s hang-dog double-take (which Matthau, of course, was a master at); the director makes sure that the audience appreciates that our hero is not free of provincialism; at the same time they are allowed to see that he also is human enough to feel abashed for his racist faux pas.

Similarly, when Matthau finally meets the police superintendent with whom he has been interacting by phone for most of the picture, and realizes that the superintendent sitting in the car is African American—we apprehend that this is something Matthau never imagined possible; for, he blurts out almost by reflex, and without the ability to check himself: “you’re . . . I thought . . . you were shorter than . . . oh, never mind what I thought!”

 


And, in fact, that is precisely the point of the movie. It really doesn’t matter what Matthau (or the viewer) thinks. Everything in the end proves to go against expectation, so the key is not to latch on too firmly to preconceptions. It is imperative, in this modernizing, roiling, society to slough it off—as the audience also must—to adapt to the emerging reality and move ahead.

Thus is it that, although the movie is clearly an entertainment—with a daring, edgy money-for-hostages scheme—its overarching message is a social one, about human (and social) evolution. And it is also why, although it is a drama—with its five deaths and tense “how will the criminals escape/how will they then be caught” structure—its overarching narrative structure is actually set up to resolve as one elaborate joke: the final frozen frame—the film’s denouement—dependent on an ironic twist that can’t help but elicit a loud “no kidding!”

 


Something that stands out about the ‘74 version is that it benefited from, but also took advantage of, the historical moment in which it was created. By contrast, the ‘09 version suffers from its firm intent to shy away from the markers of its historical moment. Of course, times are very different (now the targets are greedy Wall Street execs—who anyone can hate—rather than court-mandated social reconstruction—where allegiances were more easily divided). So too, back then, there was a certain social upheaval afoot—far from a revolution, but at least a jostle of the bottle that was redistributing the social sediment. That made everything—potentially at least—more compelling, more provocative; there was far less of this “PC sensibility”—where every political statement or cultural barb is considered an economic risk and, hence, either has to be run past a focus group or else avoided if one hopes to retain investors and maximize audience.

I won’t over-idealize it, but it strikes me that back in “the good old days”, there was less gatekeeper’s rationality; less attention to who was going to be offended or calculating what it would mean if someone was. Which explains why the ‘74 (but not the ‘09) version made an effort to attend to the slow thaw in social in/equality percolating through society—between races, but also the sexes. This is shown very early on where something is made about the recent opening of the transport authority to female hirees; while it is peripheral banter, there is some sexist venting of displeasure about “how things didn’t used to be like that when it was all men around here”, just to let us know that not all is “Mary Tyler Moore” in this real-world workplace.

Relatedly, and assisting in building some tension in the plot, although the police know that there is an undercover officer on the hijacked train, they don’t know if it is a man or woman. By this point in social history, it could be either—which actually, if one stops to think about it, is an advantage for the good guys. Anyway, not to spoil the joke, but near film’s end, Matthau encounters the cop, and, just as he did with the Japanese visitors and the African American superintendent, he manages to again put his foot squarely in his mouth. The effect of this, though, is revelatory: rather than berate him for his old-school preconceptions and borderline prejudice, we experience a celebratory warmth over how social change has made the world of this movie—the world in which these film-goers are sitting—a much richer place.

This, too, then, is something—even if only a minor stride—that the earlier script-writers succeeded in achieving through their simple cinematic diversion (and which, sadly, did not find its way into the 2009 remake).

 


Another signal difference between the two films is place. Ebert mentioned in his review of the remake that the New York presented was a “denatured action-movie landscape, with no time for local color”; by contrast, the original was

all

local color. Not simply the landmarks of the city, but the linguistic, multi-cultural, and professional stew that makes this definitely a film in and also about New York. The same story simply couldn’t have been told—at least not this way—in Los Angeles, or Paris or Barcelona, or Chicago.

This is because it is the inflected banter of New Yorkers—“characters” in the truest sense who engage with others through quick, cutting wit, street argot, and no-nonsense demeanor—that fills every edge and floods to the center of the film. And because of who these people are and how they talk, we see how they also see: life for them may be hard and they may be rough around the edges, but they are also decent people; they have moral cores; they are good folk. This comes through in any number of scenes—as, for instance, when a police lieutenant (Stiller) is asked by Matthau to explain to the Japanese visitors the kind of crimes the New York Transit Authority has to deal with. Stiller replies: “well, let’s see, yesterday we had a bomb that turned out to be a cantaloupe.” And then without missing a beat, Stiller offers: “you know, Zeke, I’m kinda busy reading the newspaper at the moment, so if you don’t mind . . .” And, similarly, when one of the hijackers starts hassling a prostitute on the train, calling her “nothing but a cheap $20 a night hooker,” the woman doesn’t necessarily take umbrage at the occupational classification, she shrilly clarifies: “hey: I’m no cheap $20 a night hooker!”

Obviously, movies have to pick their spots, but sketching in the details—even if it is only in 5 second snippets of dialogue—is something that many films today could benefit from emulating.


One of the most prevalent contemporary complaints about commercial film is its level of violence, and the 2009 Pelham is no exception. To be fair, though, there is violence in the 1974 version—as I mentioned earlier, at least five deaths. Even so, the violence makes one wonder whether it wasn’t a more innocent, restrained era back then. When death comes to the chief antagonist in the 1974 version, it is not by gunshot from the hero at close range—as in the 2009 version; rather, it is self-inflicted, by means at once gruesome and compelling—one the audience would not easily guess

Spoiler Warning!

electrocution.

But even that is handled differently than I would guess it would be today. Rather than latching onto the frying face for ten agonizing seconds, the director focused first on the shoe contacting the subway rail, then panned up the irregularly jangling leg, next he located the villain’s outstretched hand, twitching uncontrollably. There, the camera lingered for the longest duration, and only then did it seek out a rising puff of smoke, to offer a final view of Robert Shaw’s contorted face, frozen in death.

It is surely a chilling, stirring, climax. Violent—yes; however, in comparison with today’s gory ends, this one didn’t loose bullets, spread carnage, spew blood and—more importantly—it did not require the protagonist to gain redemption points by personally eliminating the bad guy.


 
Speaking of the heroes, they figure into codas that are tacked onto both films. What I find significant about these caps is what they tell us about changes in narrative structure and audience sensibilities over the years.

In the 2009 remake, Denzel receives a redemptive pat on the back by the mayor (either to reassure us that he will be exonerated for whatever financial crimes he may have committed, or that his shoot-out with Travolta will be ruled self-defense). This is followed by a liberating, meditative ride on the trains he loves so much. But there’s even more: after his long day—of negotiating with a terrorist, confessing his past criminality, speeding over the city in a helicopter, delivering ten million dollars to bad guys, then eluding them at gunpoint, commandeering a citizen’s car and chasing Travolta down through thick rush hour traffic, before confronting and shooting him—we see that ole Denzel is just another everyday Joe, grounded enough to remember the milk his wife made him promise he’d buy on the way home. Beyond painting him in the brush of “us-ness” (which, frankly, if one hundred and seventeen previous minutes of film haven’t worked to achieve, the last thirty seconds of milk probably won’t), what this conclusion achieves is to transport the audience along with Denzel. We become a fellow-passenger in his life, a witness. We are allowed to spy on and learn more about him beyond the main control room. We are treated to something he knows about himself, which is now being shared with us. In this sense our position is to participate in and get carried along in his on-going present.

By contrast, in the 1974 original, Matthau’s work isn’t done even after the chief architect of the heist is subdued; the detective still has some good old fashioned gumshoe work to engage in. Working off a suspect list, he has to knock on doors, and try to figure out who is holding the rest of the loot. What is noteworthy is that the audience already knows who the culprit is: it is a puzzle we have seen in its entirety, but which Matthau hasn’t. In that sense the movie’s final paces are a problem of mechanics: a matter of bringing the character up to the finish line where the audience is already waiting to greet him. There is a reason why this structure is not often employed in books or film: because there is little element of surprise for the audience. Absent surprise, one would surmise, they would have little interest in seeing the story through. And yet, in 1974’s Pelham we remain riveted. And why? Because surprise

does

await: the surprise of whether and, if so, how, Matthau will ever catch up with us.

And in delivering that conclusion, something funny happens. With one final twist, not only is Matthau delivered to the finish line; the audience is rewarded with the unexpected. The “how” doubles back, playfully, to something that has been staring the viewer in the face for the entire movie and which few could possibly have foreseen. And in that ironic unfolding, a rare double-dip is achieved. The viewer is repositioned back on a level plane with Matthau; and in that moment of discovery/puzzle-completion, we—who are experiencing the novel emergence of the “how” along with Matthau—can’t help but be struck by the artful, unanticipated resolution of the tale.

It is this denouement that induces the viewer to verily gush words that, for their truthfulness, sound far less hackneyed than they otherwise might: “they sure don’t make movies like

that

any more!”



 

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/take-pelham-1-less-2-thee/