Great little movie.
New York subway car Pelham 123 is hijacked by four identically dressed and armed men lead by Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw). They hold seventeen hostages on the car and demand one million dollars within an hour or they will begin executing hostages. Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) is the transit cop on duty who must handle the situation.
Though the idea of hijacking a subway is unique, it's still a rather basic hook. The excellence lies in the execution. The story takes all kinds of interesting little turns. The movie drops you in right as the hijacking begins. No background about the planning or characters yet. As the movie progresses we are still only given hints and short glimpses into the characters' backgrounds. Why would anyone hijack a subway? It's underground, with limited exits. If these hijackers are so smart, how do they plan on getting away? This is the great mystery that we ponder with Garber.
The characters are full of subtly textured details. Mr. Blue has a British accent and mentions a military background. Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) is conflicted and uncomfortable about the whole affair, and I wondered what his recruitment looked like. Mr. Grey appears to be a misanthropic loose cannon, and when Mr. Blue confesses (early on in the caper, I might add) to Mr. Green that he distrusts Grey, I was led again to wonder at the recruitment process, especially given Mr. Blue's penchant for strict planning and control. Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) is mostly a mystery, but he has a stutter and possibly a professional history with Mr. Green.
On the other side of the law we have Lt. Garber, who is introduced to us giving four Japanese visitors a boring tour of central transit control. Matthau plays Garber in his good old subdued Matthau way. I believed he genuinely cared about the situation and the passengers' lives, but he keeps his emotions pretty low-key (save for one scene where he finally explodes at an irate transit controller played by Dick O'Neill). I thought it was a good performance which played to Matthau's strengths and fit both his character and the tone of the movie. Two humorous scenes really highlighted the core of his character for me, but describing them would spoil a lot. They occur towards the end and involve Matthau's interactions with two of the hijackers separately.
The large and colorful supporting cast is also quite fun. I won't name them all, but some highlights include a younger Jerry Stiller as Lt. Rico Patrone and Doris Roberts as the mayor's wife.
The direction (by Joseph Sargent) and pacing are very well done, and it was refreshing to see such a story told without the sort of pounding musical cues, forced emotional conflicts and obvious story/character details that I'm expecting from the Tony Scott remake. (I suspect even Nobody will have a difficult time apologizing for that one.) The direction lets the viewer decide their reaction to the characters and story rather than being obviously manipulative. Movies are all about manipulation, of course, but Sargent keeps his choices subtle. The script allows some natural humor, but doesn't shy away from a few bits of dark violence that enforce the movie's intention to be a serious crime flick rather than light-hearted caper. Mr. Blue's last scene is particularly memorable and shocking.
While I'm sure I'm the millionth person to discover this, I noticed that Tarantino took some inspiration from Pelham for Reservoir Dogs. In both films, the villains are codenamed for colors and all dress identically for the crime. I loved the costumes worn by the hijackers in Pelham. Each wears a drab coat, a mustache, glasses, and a hat. Combined with the nasty looking machine guns, the ensemble makes for quite a memorable image. (Speaking of the guns, they were S&W M76s, the same kind that Ledger carried as The Joker in The Dark Knight. While Googling I found a site called the Internet Movie Firearms Database, which is a great site for movie nerds who are also gun nerds, like me.)
I heartily recommend a rental. The DVD from 2000 is, unfortunately, non-anamorphic, so if you have a widescreen TV, be prepared for either a tiny picture or some fiddling and a slightly stretched picture. I hope that, with the release of the remake, we'll see a Blu-Ray release of the original like we did with The Day the Earth Stood Still.