1977, 143 min.
Directed by John Frankenheimer
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
1974, 104 min.
Directed by Joseph Sargent
For some, Sundays are a day of rest. For me, it's usually just a day of lazy. Expectations are modest for Sundays in my life. Mostly it's a reset for weekly activities: grocery shopping, laundry, house cleaning, and so forth. These double features I'm taking in this summer are a welcome break from Sunday's malaise. As a bonus, I'm catching up on many essential films a cinema enthusiast like me should see. I've been exposed to all kinds of cinema in my lifetime, but the classic films this summer are filling in a lot of gaps of movies I already should have seen if I consider myself a film expert. I learn something new with each viewing.
Black Sunday is based on the novel by author/masochist Thomas Harris (written long before he ever created Hannibal Lecter) about some terrorists that plan to detonate a bomb on the Goodyear blimp during the Super Bowl. It is a very good thriller and a superb cat-and-mouse type of action movie that feels like a Tom Clancy novel. Too much, if you ask me. Why ever would I say that? Well, it's because the plot of The Sum of All Fears is strikingly similar. To such a degree that I can imagine some lawyers got involved somewhere and were made to hush up like that story about the Red October submarine. Sum was also made into a movie, one starring Morgan Freeman... and Ben Affleck. Yeah, I know. But hey, Liev Shrieber was really good in that one!
Ok, sorry for the non-sequitor. Black Sunday is surprisingly good, if a little dated. Bruce Dern is effectively creepy as a broken man manipulated into becoming a martyr for Black September, a Palestinean terrorist group one may recall was behind the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972. A former P.O.W. who now freelances as a blimp pilot, he plans to detonate a flechette bomb aboard the Goodyear blimp on Super Bowl Sunday, killing thousands with pieces of shrapnel. You get brief glimpses into his life throughout the movie, and it's not a pretty picture. He's not as messed up as, say, Christopher Walken was in The Deer Hunter, but his plight is sad nonetheless.
The first hints of this plot are uncovered during a Beruit raid led by Mossad agent Major David Kabakov, played by Robert Shaw. His pursuit of a female terrorist leads him and American agents onto the trail of the would-be assassins. From there, it's a fascinating ride that allows us to see the progress of both the hunter and the hunted.
And speaking of hunting, Shaw is relentless and without scruples as he chases leads. It was a bit eye-opening to see someone operating so hardcore. Shaw's portrayal of Kabakov make Jack Bauer look like a kindergarten teacher. One scene in particular, where Robert Shaw interrogates Frankie Pentangeli from The Godfather, Part II (the actor, not the character), is so uncompromising you can't help but smile. Forcing a gun into his prisoner's mouth, Shaw says calmly, "blink for yes. Die for no." Isn't that cool as hell? Appalling? Sure, I'll concede that. But this is the kind of bloodlust the movie baits you with. It builds momentum in the second and third acts towards an avalanche where you are ready for mayhem to erupt. And Black Sunday delivers. Oh yes, indeed.
I've always had great respect for the work of director John Frankenheimer (I choose to pretend that Island of Dr. Moreau remake never happened), but I was impressed to see many techniques in Black Sunday that have clearly influenced the current generation of action movies. The combination of the film's editing and the score (by the master himself, John Williams) makes for some high octane tension. I also can't help but think that Steven Spielberg based the tone of Munich partly on this film. In that movie, Eric Bana is also a Mossad agent with some reservations about the nature of his work, and the characterizations are similar to Shaw's here. The use of handhelds in Black Sunday's action sequences must have influenced Paul Greengrass, particularly in the Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum. There are many quick edits in the action sequences, leading the way for the smashcut style of Tony Scott and Michael Bay. However, unlike Bay's Transformers, one can actually tell what's going on in this film.
In many ways, Black Sunday was way ahead of its time. Sadly, what was considered outrageous fantasy back in 1977 was proven more realistic with the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11. Maybe as a result of our more sensitive times, I'm surprised by how ballsy it is. It would be unimaginable for Goodyear to lend their likeness to their blimp if the movie was made today. I can see the meeting of board of directors now. "It's a weapon of mass destruction? Sure!" (slaps logo on the side). Even more striking is the fact the NFL approved its license for use here. I mean, I know it can't be "The Super Bowl" without the NFL's approval, but this film actually filmed during Super Bowl X between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers. Look, there's Tom Landry! And Terry Bradshaw! And Roger Staubach! And a blimp coming to kill us all!
Much to my delight, it's not just stock footage, either. Black Friday integrates the game flawlessly, and I'm sure is a better record of the game than whatever sits on a shelf in the NFL archives. It's a shame the game looked so bad for the Cowboys, though. In fact, so much footage was shown of turnovers and interceptions I had to make sure it wasn't Tony Romo out there instead. Be that as it may, mayhem and the gridiron never looked so good. I don't know about you, but I think I'm going to make Black Sunday a new Super Bowl Sunday tradition. In addition to queso, burgers, hot dogs, pizza, and guacamole, I say let's all watch Robert Shaw kick some ass instead of watching that marathon of unimportant pre-game footage.
After the film, I had time to stretch and hit the loo. I moseyed downstairs and browsed the merchandise cart. Struck with inspiration, I decided to get some items to send my parents. After all, Father's Day is coming and my mother's birthday follows soon after. It'll be part of a nice care package I have yet to assemble. So... Mom, Dad, if you're reading this... please act happy when you open the goods.
I then grab my customary Dr. Pepper and head back to my seat. After a few minutes, the lights go down. Ah, there are trailers this time! Shown before the second feature are the trailers for Breathless, Giant, and Alien. That's an eclectic mix right there. I barely have time to get my heart rate back down after that damn Alien teaser when the movie begins. I had no idea about the greatness I was about to behold.
"Now, then, ladies and gentlemen, do you see this gun? It fires 750 rounds of 9-millimeter ammunition per minute. In other words, if all of you simultaneously were to rush me, not a single one of you would get any closer than you are right now. I do hope I've made myself understood."
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is, quite simply, badass. It's a heist movie that is in the same vein as Dog Day Afternoon and is un-apologetically not politically correct. A four man crew takes a New York City subway car hostage and demand one million dollars in an hour. A tense and tight thriller with memorable characters, elaborate schemes, and a heavy dose of unrepentant 1970s NYC attitude, Pelham also seemed to influence cinematic crime stories that followed. From Reservoir Dogs to Die Hard, Pelham had left such a mark that it's no surprise it eventually got remade.
The cast is spot on. Robert Shaw is the cold and calculating ringleader of the gunmen, Martin Balsam (last seen by yours truly taking a butcher knife to the face from Norman Bates's mother) is a disgruntled ex-subway driver, Hector Elizondo is some sleazy mafioso perv with an itchy trigger finger (I would've loved to see this character try to "help" Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman), and a fourth guy who is remarkable only for being tall and stuttering. Only after going home and doing some good ol' IMDB research did I find out it was Earl Hindman, the neighbor from "Home Improvement" whose face we never saw. (Shrug) Who knew??
The film hits the ground running. No preamble, it simply begins with these four putting their plan into action. And they make it look soooo easy. Right away the audience learns that these men are efficient and ruthless professionals. All dressed in the same fedoras, nerd glasses and fake mustaches, they refer to each other only by code names: Mr. Blue (Shaw), Mr. Green (Balsam), Mr. Gray (Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Hindman). Hmmmm. Sound familiar? Perhaps if I play "Little Green Bag" or "Stuck in the Middle with You" that bell in the back of your mind may go off. Why, I hadn't heard of color-coded gunmen since... Reservoir Dogs. Now, it's been widely reported that the Hong Kong film City on Fire was Quentin Tarantino's main inspiration to make Dogs, but you can't tell me Quentin came up with those character names merely by looking at a box of crayons. There was no Mr. Burnt Sienna, after all.
Now, Pelham is not just one of those films where the bad guys are so damn cool you root for them all the way. In fact, the most likable character is played by the protagonist. I personally never thought I'd see Walter Matthau in a gritty crime story of this sort; yet here he is. And I loved him in it. In a film about theft on a grand scale, it's ironic that Matthau (the hero) steals the movie. He plays Lt. Zachary Garber, and he's the one man who may match up in this game of chess with Mr. Blue. On paper Matthau may seem out of place, but his comic timing and genuine sense of contemplation is the perfect counter balance to a harsh crime story.
In fact, most of the NYC authority figures have a gruff sense of humor in spite of the gravity of the situation. Bureaucracy is shown to be the real foe in this story, personified by an inept and indecisive mayor. All other city employees know they have a job to do, and they carry their responsibilities right next to the chips on their shoulders. They do their jobs the best they can, but never hesitate to drop some one-liners along the way.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a briskly edited film, and the pacing is never disrupted by the inter-cutting between Shaw and Matthau's actions. In fact, it's a joy to watch because the movie has such personality. The score is fantastic, gritty and rough, and sets the tone perfectly. All humor is, for the most part, inappropriate but never vulgar. What's striking is that most of the characters are memorable, even if their screen time is brief. There are unique hostages, cops, and even Japanese dignitaries. Be sure to keep an eye out for Jerry Stiller as another NYC cop (and try not to think of Frank Constanza screaming "Happy Festivus!"). All are given a little moment to shine, be it with with a sly grin or a smart aleck remark. Again, it's sooo good. A great movie that is miles better than the likes of other subway capers like Money Train or adrenaline rides like Speed. Overall, a tightly wound and underappreciated film.
So I went home after this fun experience, but my night wasn't over yet. I was so taken by Pelham that I immediately went home and watched the 2009 remake (God bless Netflix streaming). However, that enthusiasm was short-lived once this one started. Perhaps if I had watched the remake first, I would've thought it was a decent movie. But what I saw, having literally watched the original a few hours before, was an overdone mess. If the original was a perfectly cooked steak, the remake was so full of unnecessary sizzle that the meat got burnt to a crisp. How utterly disappointing.
The remake's casting simply doesn't light a candle to the original. It speaks volumes that Matthau's character was split into two different roles in the 2009 version. Denzel Washington and John Turturro still couldn't carry the amount of charm that Matthau's Garber did, but they were miles better than the casting for Robert Shaw's character. I mean, Travolta?? really? The dude from Grease? That's like someone remaking Die Hard in about 20 years and making Zac Efron the Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) character. John Travolta seems to think growing facial hair and dropping the F bomb makes him an edgy bad guy. Note to Vinny Barbarino: It doesn't work. I could go on and on about the remake's shortcomings, but it's not worth the effort. Suffice it to say, you can't catch that lightning in a bottle twice.
The bad taste of 2009's Taking of Pelham One Two Three made me ponder the reason for Robert Shaw's awesomeness. And after a few minutes, I think I figured out why he rocks. Robert Shaw was Alan Rickman before Alan Rickman was Alan Rickman. If you can comprehend what I just tried to say there, I applaud you and will buy you a cookie one day. In short, Shaw sure makes a smooth criminal. I'm sure Michael Jackson agreed. Think of the lyrics for a minute. "It Was Sunday - What A Black Day." Think that was a coincidence, friends?
In all seriousness though, Shaw was unique. Even as a movie's hero (like Black Sunday), he's hard-boiled. Only Jaws's monster shark could match up with Shaw in his career (ok, I concede Walter Matthau also). Nobody else effs with Shaw in the movies. If he had made a film with, say, Chuck Norris... it wouldn't compare because Chuck Norris isn't a real actor.
Like most of these screenings, I've come away with a greater appreciation of what I've just viewed. Robert was a heck of an actor and an all-round tough guy. And to think, I may have continued knowing him merely from Jaws, but now I know the truth. Nope, it wasn't just another lazy Sunday for me. It was a Black and (Mr.) Blue Sunday. Bruises courtesy of Robert Shaw, and few things hurt so good.