Release Date(s)1974 (December 20, 2022)
Studio(s)Palomar Pictures/Palladium Productions/United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
[Editor’s Note: The film portion of this review is by Tim Salmons, from his look at the 2016 Blu-ray release (available here). The 4K UHD A/V and extras portions are by Bill Hunt.]
If the only version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three you’ve ever seen is the 2009 remake, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The original 1974 classic is one of the best heist thrillers ever put on film, with a tightly-woven plot, great performances, and a fantastic score by David Shire. Based upon the novel by Morton Freedgood (published under the pseudonym of John Godey) and adapted by Peter Stone, the movie tells the story of four criminals using the names Mr. Blue, Mr. Grey, Mr. Green, and Mr. Brown (Tarantino fans take note) who hijack a New York City subway train. Once they have its passengers at gunpoint, the group orders the transit authorities via radio to deliver a million dollars in one hour or they’ll begin shooting their hostages one by one. Faced with impossible odds, these authorities—led by NYC Transit Police lieutenant Zack Garber (Walter Matthau)—and the rest of the NYPD go to great lengths to try and foil the criminals’ plans.
Joseph Sargent, who’d directed the Burt Reynolds vehicle White Lightning the year before, helmed this project with a cast of familiar faces and character actors. Robert Shaw (Jaws, Force 10 from Navarone) is absolutely menacing as the leader of the criminal foursome, Mr. Blue. Matthau (The Odd Couple, Grumpy Old Men) gives a memorable performance here too. At this point in his career, Matthau was on a streak of great crime thrillers that included Charlie Varrick and The Laughing Policemen, both classics in their own right. His performance as the schlubby Lieutenant Garber is the glue that holds Pelham together, with an ironic yet sincere take on the material that keeps the film moving along and entertaining. The rest of the cast includes Hector Elizondo (Chicago Hope), Martin Balsam (Psycho), Earl Hindman (Home Improvement), and Jerry Stiller (Seinfeld).
Pelham doesn’t bother wasting time with useless character backstory. Even the motivations of the four criminals are never really explored. What the movie focuses on instead is the plot itself. Not only is the criminal’s plan and its execution gripping, but the texture of New York City sensibilities and humor keeps the film grounded in a tangible and relatable way. This includes a mayor (played by Ed Koch lookalike Lee Wallace, Batman (1989), Klute), who is completely useless as events are sent into motion. Pelham is a very funny movie, but that humor never comes at the expense of the pacing or story. Pelham also contains a great ending, with one of the best final shots of any film of the period.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was shot on 35 mm film by cinematographer Owen Roizman (The Exorcist, The French Connection) using Panavision Panaflex cameras with Panavision anamorphic lenses and it was finished photochemically at the 2.39:1 “scope” aspect ratio for theaters. For the film’s release on Ultra HD, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has commissioned a new 16-bit 4K scan of the original camera negative and graded the image for High Dynamic Range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available). The result is impressive, offering a significant visual upgrade over MGM’s 2011 Blu-ray and KLSC’s own 2016 Blu-ray as well. It is, however, an upgrade that isn’t likely to impress those who aren’t already familiar with this film—this is not what one would call reference-quality. The image is nicely detailed and cinematic looking however, with a pleasing uptick in detail, save for the usual (and expected) anamorphic softness around the edges of the frame. Contrast is improved over the previous Blu-rays, with deep shadows and a little bit more detail visible within them. There’s still a bit of black crush here and there, but that’s inherent in the negative. Highlights are naturally bolder and more detailed, while the muted and Earth-toned colors of 1970s attire and grimy subway stations exhibit a bit more nuance. The yellow of Walter Matthau’s tie is richer looking. The subway train’s cockpit has a warmer look, which contrasts nicely with the bluer light in its passenger compartment. This isn’t exactly a film with a dazzling palette, but it definitely looks better than ever before here in 4K.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is offered in an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that preserves the film’s original monophonic sound experience. Also available is a new 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix of similar character that lightly extends the music and occasional atmospheric and directional cues into the surround channels. Both tracks are biased to the front and center, with clean dialogue and aggressive sound effects. The score is strident to be sure, yet well integrated with other elements. No analog hiss or age-related audio artifacts appear to remain. Optional English SDH subtitles are available for those who might need them.
Kino Lorber Studio Classic’s new Ultra HD release is a 2-disc set, with the film in 4K on UHD and also 1080p HD on Blu-ray (this appears to be a new disc, remastered from the new 4K presentation). Both the 4K and Blu-ray include the following extras:
- Audio Commentary by Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson
- Audio Commentary by Pat Healey and Jim Healey
To this, the Blu-ray adds the following:
- The Making of Pelham One Two Three (HD – 6:08)
- 12 Minutes with Mr. Grey: Interview with Actor Hector Elizondo (HD – 12:02)
- Cutting on Action: Interview with Editor Gerald B. Greenberg (HD – 9:09)
- The Sound of the City: Interview with Composer David Shire (HD – 9:07)
- Trailers from Hell with Josh Olson (HD – 2:40)
- Image and Poster Gallery (HD – 2:20)
- Radio Spots (HD – 2 spots – 1:01 in all)
- TV Spot (HD – :32)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:33)
- Charley Varrick Trailer (HD – 2:31)
- The Laughing Policeman Trailer (HD – 3:36)
- Force 10 from Navarone Trailer (HD – 1:45)
- White Lightning Trailer (HD – 2:26)
- The Train Trailer (SD – 4:35)
- Breakheart Pass Trailer (SD – 3:07)
- Runaway Train Trailer (SD – 1:58)
Some of these extras carry over from the original KLSC Blu-ray, including the commentary with actor/filmmaker Pat Healy and film programmer/historian Jim Healy, the various interview featurettes, the trailer, the Trailers from Hell piece, and the image gallery. New for this release is a fresh commentary with film historians Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson, a newly-uncovered vintage “making of” featurette (finished on film and scanned in HD), TV and radio spots, and a collection of trailers for several other KLSC catalog Blu-ray titles. It’s a great batch of material—more than you’d expect to find for a title like this—and the new content represents a nice upgrade over the previous editions. And the first pressing of this title comes with a nice cardboard slipcover that features the original poster artwork.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of the all-time great dramas set in New York City, not to mention a lean and mean crime caper. Add in some great humor, terrific performances, and a gem of an ending, and the result is a classic of hard-hitting 1970s filmmaking. Kino Lorber Studio Classic’s new 4K release isn’t quite reference-grade, but it’s certainly a top-quality presentation of this particular film. So if you’re a fan, pick this one up and enjoy a worthy catalog title upgrade. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons, with Bill Hunt